GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Tennessee's defenders call third down the "money down."
The Volunteers left Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium with empty pockets Saturday, though.
At one point, the 19th-ranked Gators, led by backup quarterback Tyler Murphy, were 10-of-15 in converting third downs into firsts as Tennessee struggled to get off the field in the 31-17 loss.
"Pretty much that's just a big key of defense," Vols linebacker A.J. Johnson said. "Third down's the money down. We did a bad job of not getting off on that."
The Gators converted the first five third downs they faced in the second half, including two each on both of their scoring drives. All of them were 4 yards or more.
Murphy either ran or scrambled for five of those 10 third-down conversions, one of which was a score, but his 31-yard strike to Quinton Dunbar was the biggest, as the Vols had the chance to regain possession trailing 17-10.
"If you can't get off the field on third down," Vols coach Butch Jones said, "you have zero chance."
Florida entered the game leading the nation in most time of possession, and the Gators held the ball for nearly 40 minutes Saturday, with Murphy and tailbacks Matt Jones and Mack Brown combining for 219 yards rushing.
"I wouldn't say we were tired," Johnson said. "We're conditioned to play four quarters and even longer than fourth quarters. We just kept playing hard."
On one hand, the Vols are so depleted in the secondary that freshman walk-on Devaun Swafford has to play meaningful snaps at nickelback, an important position.
On the other hand, the Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett High School graduate deserves credit for going from grayshirt candidate, meaning he would have sat out the fall semester and joined the team in January, to a first-team role, which he assumed from JaRon Toney, himself a former walk-on, this past week.
The 5-foot-11, 184-pounder intercepted a pass from Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel and returned it 62 yards for Tennessee's lone first-half score. The last defensive back to register a pick-six at Florida was Eric Berry in 2007.
Burned by Oregon receiver Josh Huff on a touchdown last week, Swafford also took a bad angle on Florida receiver Solomon Patton's catch-and-run touchdown in the second quarter.
"Here's a walk-on nickel for you that was playing high school football last year," Jones said. "He gives us everything he has. Does he make mistakes out there? Yes, he's young. He lets the ball get outside, but he's extremely competitive, and he's resilient. He did a great job of reading the eyes of the quarterback, broke on the football and gave us a spark, and that was great to see."
Tennessee receiver Pig Howard returned to the lineup after missing last week's loss at Oregon, when the Vols had to toss out half their game plan with their top slot receiver unavailable. The sophomore caught four passes Saturday for 75 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown and a 29-yard reception in the fourth quarter.
Howard said he pulled a hamstring in practice Tuesday before the game against the Ducks.
"I'm very good," Howard said. "Last week I had a hamstring issue. I did a lot of treatment to kind of eliminate me from having the same problems along those lines, and they kind of took me easy early in the week to make sure I wouldn't have the same repeat of what happened."
Tennessee slot receiver Johnathon Johnson (leg) did not travel and missed his second consecutive game. Redshirt sophomore Mack Crowder (thigh bruise), who's the sixth man on the offensive line and a second tight end in some run-heavy sets, also didn't make the trip.
Linebacker Curt Maggitt (knee) also didn't play, and freshman quarterback Josh Dobbs was not on Tennessee's 70-man travel roster.
Two starters, cornerback Marcus Roberson (knee) and right tackle Tyler Moore (ankle), didn't play for Florida, which was also without running back Valdez Showers (ankle) and freshman receiver Demarcus Robinson, who was suspended before the game for a violation of team rules.
Gators starting right guard Jon Halapio went to the locker room in the first quarter before returning. Cornerback Louchiez Purifoy, who took a toss sweep for 15 yards on Florida's first offensive play, left in the third quarter with a thigh injury.
Tennessee's captains for the game were center James Stone, linebackers Johnson and Dontavis Sapp and safety Byron Moore. ... Freshman Jalen Reeves-Maybin made two nice tackles in kickoff coverage, including the hit that knocked Purifoy out of the game. ... Greg Clark and Danny O'Brien were Tennessee's second defensive tackle tandem behind starters Daniel McCullers and Daniel Hood.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...