GatorZone.com Senior Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The kind of play Lerentee McCray made with his first quarter interception Saturday night didn’t happen for the Florida Gators too often last season. Which was probably why it stood out.
There’s a name for plays like that.
“Game-changers,” UF defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said after the feel-good 37-20 beating of the Volunteers at Neyland Stadium. “Those are things, quite frankly, that have been missing from our defense. And they’re things we’ve put a very big emphasis on this year.”
Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray dropped back and with the pocket squeezing in around him threw a pass across the middle that practically looked like it was intended for McCray, the UF senior linebacker.
Off McCray went for a 25-yard return that set up UF’s first touchdown of the game.
“It was big,” cornerback Jaylen Watkins. “So was the other one.”
That would be safety Matt Elam’s interception in the fourth quarter. It came when Bray was under pressure from McCray blitzing from his buck position. The ball sailed on Bray and hit Elam in the numbers at the UF 30.
“It shifted the momentum,” Elam said. “They’re moving and we take the ball out of their hands, we give it to our offense and we score points.”
Indeed, three plays later, thanks to a Mike Gillislee run of 45 yards and 23-yard touchdown pass from Jeff Driskel to tight end Jordan Reed, the Gators had a 27-20 lead and never trailed the rest of the way.
Those two picks, coupled with a turnover-less performance from the UF offense, gave the Gators a plus-2 takeaway margin and ran the season’s margin to plus-3. That’s not great, but it’s better than minus-12, which Florida was in 2011, thanks to miscues on offense and missed opportunities on defense.
“We dropped a couple more tonight,” Watkins said. “But we got a couple when it mattered.”
Made some big-time plays that mattered without turnovers, too.
Tennessee led 20-13 when the Gators tried a fake punt near midfield, only to be thwarted by an alert Vols kick-return unit.
“Brilliant call by me,” UF coach Will Muschamp deadpanned.
But brilliant defense bailed him out.
Bray and the Vols had a first down at the UF 47, but the Gators turned them away with a timely three-and-out. UT’s punt sailed into the end zone, UF started at its 20 and on first down Trey Burton ran 80 yards for a touchdown to tie the game.
Did someone say “game-changer” again?
“I think that was a huge, huge turning point,” Muschamp said.
Given the weapons stacked on the Tennessee side -- Bray, along with wideouts Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson could be playing on Sundays this time next year -- the entire night at Neyland may have been a turning point.
“In a game like this, with the talent they’ve got, you’re going to get beat,” Elam said. “It’s about what you do after you get beat. How are you going to respond?”
Here's how: the Gators surrendered 220 yards to the Vols in the first half, but only 120 in the second half -- and a mere five yards in the fourth quarter.
Make that two weeks in a row Florida came out after halftime and completely shifted the game’s complexion. Last week at Texas A&M, the Aggies gained 268 yards in the first half and led by a touchdown, then managed just 68 yards in the second half in blowing a lead in the fourth quarter.
Muschamp has talked about winning the fourth quarter. The Gators have outscored their three opponents a combined 27-0 in the fourth quarter thus far and against Tennessee scored the game's final 24 points, including 10 in the final period.
“We were ready,” Quinn said. “As a staff, we asked them at halftime, ‘Have we been here before? Can we do it again?’ The answer was a resounding yes.”
What transpired on the field was even more resounding.