Tennessee’s early season quarterback switch backfired dramatically on Saturday as redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman endured a nightmarish debut start that only magnified the problems on the Vols’ sluggish offense.
Peterman threw two interceptions and was a part of two fumbles before he was benched in the second quarter, sending the Vols to a 31-17 loss to No. 19 Florida at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The Vols (2-2, 0-1 SEC) squandered a sloppy performance by the Gators (2-1, 1-0), who lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel to a broken right leg in the first quarter and committed three turnovers of their own in the first half.
Tennessee suffered its ninth consecutive loss to the Gators and 18th consecutive loss against ranked opponents. The Vols have not won an SEC road game since 2010.
“It’s a long football season,” said first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones. “There is no panic. We have to keep things in perspective.”
The Vols were 17-point underdogs against the Gators and few expected them to be in the game in the fourth quarter, but in some ways that made the loss more frustrating.
Peterman’s turnovers contrasted with the bland efficiency of starter Justin Worley, who was benched despite throwing only one interception in the first three games.
Peterman, who grew up a fan of Gators legend Tim Tebow in Fruit Cove, Fla., was announced as the starter just 90 minutes before kickoff. Jones said Peterman had a better week of practice and coaches likely hoped he would spark the stagnant offense.
The outing was miserable from the start. The Vols fumbled on their second play of the game — for the second game in a row — when Peterman and running back Rajion Neal got tied up on a handoff exchange.
Three offensive plays later, Peterman fumbled after being hit in the pocket. His first interception came on an errant throw. The second came when the ball slipped out of his hand.
Peterman did not speak to media after the game. UT officials said that was Jones’ decision, not Peterman’s.
“It’s not all on Nathan Peterman,” Jones said. “I love Nathan Peterman. But there’s a little bit of a difference from practice to the game.”
Jones reinstalled Worley as starter just before halftime. He said he would have to watch film before making a decision on next week’s starter, but it seems fairly certain that it won’t be Peterman.
Despite the miserable half, the Vols stayed in the game because of the Gators’ own mistakes.
Driskel broke his lower right leg on the same play he threw an interception that Vols freshman Devaun Swafford returned 62 yards for a touchdown. (Florida coach Will Muschamp confirmed after the game that Driskel would undergo surgery and miss the rest of the season). There were more gifts, including a mishandled punt and a fumble.
The Vols’ defense looked worn down by the second half, and the Gators converted 10 third downs to stay on the field for 39 minutes of possession.
Worley (10-of-23 for 149 yards) helped lead the Vols back, finding a wide-open Alton “Pig” Howard in the end zone for a 18-yard touchdown with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter that cut the Gators’ lead to 14. But the Vols’ last hopes essentially ended when Worley tried to throw a ball out of bounds but was intercepted by Florida safety Jabari Gorman, who made a leaping catch near the sidelines.
Florida backup quarterback Tyler Murphy settled down after a rocky start, completing 8 of 14 passes for 134 yards and rushing for 87 more.
“One man’s misfortunes are another man’s opportunities,” Muschamp said.
Tennessee returns home for a nonconference game against South Alabama next Saturday, and Jones said there were enough encouraging moments in the Florida loss that he was eager to get back on the practice field.
“I thought our kids showed resiliency,” Jones said. “They were a blue-collar football team. They didn’t quit.”
The progress is evident to coaches even if it isn’t visible to outsiders, Jones said. It hasn’t shown up on the scoreboard yet, either, but Jones is confident the Vols are slowly building to that point.
“Brick by brick isn’t just a fancy slogan,” said Jones, referring to the motto he has embraced. “It’s a mentality. We’re building a culture.”
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