Commentary

Tennessee, Florida answer questions

Florida looks vulnerable in win, Tennessee looks tough in loss

Originally Published: September 19, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As the four white buses carrying the Tennessee football team made their way to The Swamp, cars hastily pulled over to the side of the road.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Kim Klement/US PresswireLane Kiffin's words renewed interest in the UT-Florida rivalry.

Not to let the Volunteers pass. To taunt them.

Gator-chomping arms protruded from windows. Fans walking on the sidewalks ran into the streets to chomp. Or extend one-fingered salutes. Or wave signs ripping the new coach of the Vols.

And one fat guy in a Florida jersey kept thrusting his pelvis forward, fingers pointing at his groin as he bellowed, "Riiiight heeeere! Riiiight heeeere!"

This was Lane Kiffin's full-frontal welcome to Southeastern Conference football. And it would only get more graphic once inside the stadium.

"There were a lot of F-words that were not 'Florida' being yelled at me," Kiffin said some six hours later.

By then, the operative F-word for Gator Nation was frustration. The No. 1 team in the nation won, but it did not translate hate into humiliate. It did not bury the 30-point underdog Vols or their fresh-mouthed coach.

The 23-13 victory can be embraced amid the carnage of another wild weekend in college football -- USC joined Oklahoma and Oklahoma State as top-five losers already this season. This does nothing to derail the defending national champions' repeat quest.

But the record Florida Field crowd of 90,894 filed out much more subdued than it went in. Its bloodlust was unfulfilled.

There were no rub-it-in timeouts at the end. No run-up-the-score touchdowns or field goals. No stop-the-cruelty tilting of the scoreboard.

The game was too close for any of that.

[+] EnlargeEric Berry
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesAll-American safety Eric Berry led a hard-nosed Tennessee defense.

Instead, the game ended with Tim Tebow taking a knee. Kiffin received a brief handshake from the coach he famously and erroneously accused of cheating back in February, Urban Meyer. And he received a quick hug from the indomitable Florida quarterback.

Kiffin is 0-1 in SEC play. But his quarterback-poor team refused to submit to a blowout in Florida's backyard. That's a win for the coach's credibility and Tennessee's trampled pride, and it's a strong signal that the league's premier rivalry of the 1990s is poised for a comeback.

"I didn't come down here to cover the spread or have a moral victory," Kiffin said.

If you say so, Kiff. The postgame vibe from the Vols was almost all positive.

"Nobody gave us a chance," said splendid Tennessee safety Eric Berry. "We were supposed to lose by 50.

"Tennessee is here for real. That wasn't just gibberish that Coach Kiffin was saying."

It was Kiffin's penchant for gibberish that turned this game into a national curiosity. And if you ask the league leader in revisionist history, that was part of the master plan.

"I think it worked perfect," Kiffin said. "It took all the attention off our players. Allowed them to play free. You don't want pressure on your players. Put it on me."

[+] EnlargeJonathan Crompton
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesJonathan Crompton struggled getting the Vols' offense going.

Time to put something else on Kiffin now. A new measure of respect. He and his stellar staff can do more than just recruit; they had their team ready for this enormous challenge.

"They played a lot better than they played on film," Florida cornerback Joe Haden said.

Kiffin proclaimed that his father, legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, provided "a blueprint" for how to attack Meyer's explosive spread offense. The Vols held the Gators to half their season average in yardage (323 yards) and 36 points below their scoring average.

The dramatic difference between the teams was at quarterback.

Wearing Tennessee's white was Jonathan Crompton, a senior who has now thrown zero touchdown passes and five interceptions in his past two games. Kiffin had so little confidence in Crompton that he dialed up running plays on third-and-9, third-and-11 and third-and-20. On one series, the Vols had first-and-25, second-and-24 and third-and-20 -- and ran it every time.

"It's not no-confidence," Kiffin said, unconvincingly. "It's risk vs. reward."

Even when Crompton did throw the ball, it was almost always short dump-off stuff to backs or tight ends. Tennessee's wide receivers might as well have stayed in Knoxville, they were so small a part of the gameplan.

Florida's wideouts were not dramatically more involved, as it becomes clear this team is still searching for ways to replace Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy. But the Gators did have "Superman," as Kiffin repeatedly called Tebow. And even on a day when he turned the ball over twice, the Man of Steel was once again the biggest reason why Florida won.

Tebow threw for a pedestrian 115 yards, and his running totals were not dazzling, either: 76 yards on 24 carries. But he is simply unstoppable in key situations.

On the Gators' two third-quarter scoring drives, Tebow ran or passed on 15 of their 20 plays. He single-handedly wore out the Tennessee D.

"At the end of the day, Superman's back there with the ball," Kiffin said. "You've got to find a way to tackle him, and I don't know how you invent that.

Nobody gave us a chance. We were supposed to lose by 50. Tennessee is here for real. That wasn't just gibberish that Coach Kiffin was saying.

-- Tennessee safety Eric Berry

"Every time you get them to third-and-3 or less, they're going to make it. They're going to snap it to No. 15."

Time and again, Tebow hammered through tacklers or danced away from them with his rare combination of strength and athleticism. Kiffin said that on three different occasions he despaired into his headset, "Is he ever going to wear out?"

The answer is no.

The one-play highlight of the game was a quien es mas macho smash-up between the two best players in the SEC on a Tebow keeper around the right end.

The 235-pound Tebow lowered his broad shoulders and aimed his helmet squarely at Berry -- much more fullback than quarterback in that moment. Berry was giving away 32 pounds, but refused to go for the ankle tackle. He stood his ground and awaited the train wreck.

"I just bit down on my mouthpiece and tried to give it everything I had," Berry said. "All the power cleans, all the squats I did this summer, that's why."

The percussive collision sent both bodies flying to the ground -- Tebow falling forward, but not splattering Berry by any means.

"At first I was like, 'Dang, he done got me, y'all,'" Berry said with a smile. "Then I looked at the JumboTron. You can call it what you want. It was a good collision."

It was all of that. Berry came back with a diving interception of Tebow later in the half -- but even after watching his All-America safety do that and rack up 11 tackles, Kiffin said Tebow was the best player on the field.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesTim Tebow proved to be the difference for Florida.

"Eric is a phenomenal player," Kiffin said. "But Eric doesn't touch the ball every snap."

Perhaps he should touch it occasionally on offense. At quarterback. In a Wildcat look. Berry was one heck of a running quarterback in high school, and it's rather clear the Vols need some help at that position.

And perhaps Tebow should touch it less often if he's going to survive an entire season in the high-impact SEC. He's close to indestructible, but injuries do happen. Ask Oklahoma and USC how much fun it's been playing without their starting quarterbacks.

Even with Tebow, Florida did not look invulnerable in its first big test of 2009. This game had to give a glimmer of hope to the folks in Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge, Oxford and anywhere else they're dreaming of an SEC title.

Meanwhile, folks around the league hoping Meyer would wipe the smirk right off Lane Kiffin's face didn't get what they wished for. The cocky kid coach lost his first SEC game, but he's going to be a factor in this league for years to come.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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