Vols kept themselves from operating at a rapid rate against Gators

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III is playing at a really high level according to offensive coordinator Joey Halzle, but the Volunteers didn't operate at their usual pace during Saturday night's 29-16 loss at Florida.

If it seemed as if Tennessee's frenetic offense was operating at a slower pace during Saturday night's 29-16 loss at Florida, it's because it was.

Those yellow things can do that.

The Volunteers committed false-start penalties on three consecutive drives during the first half, when the Gators erased an early 7-0 lead and established a 26-7 advantage through two quarters. Tennessee finished with 10 overall flags for 79 yards in falling for the 10th consecutive time in the Swamp.

"It was getting behind the chains," Tennessee third-year quarterbacks coach and first-year offensive coordinator Joey Halzle said Tuesday during a news conference. "You basically wind up with two drive-starting plays. You've got to do something to start the drive, and then you basically have to start the drive over again, so you have to slow it back down, move a body, use a motion, bring somebody in and move somebody out.

"When you start doing that, it just naturally slows everything down."

Tennessee has led the nation with 2.97 offensive plays per minute during the Josh Heupel era, and this season's average is slightly above that at 3.04. Through opening wins over Virginia and Austin Peay, the Vols were reeling off plays at a staggering 3.19 clip.

Last Saturday looked like it would be more of the same when Tennessee took its opening possession 71 yards in six plays and grabbed a 7-0 lead on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Joe Milton III to Ramel Keyton. The Vols quickly got a first down on their second drive when Milton found Squirrel White for 16 yards, but then right tackle Jeremiah Crawford was flagged for a false start that resulted in a first-and-15 situation that they couldn't overcome.

Tennessee's third possession began with a false start on center Ollie Lane and ended with Milton throwing an interception on second-and-12, and the fourth drive opened with a false start on right guard Javontez Spraggins and concluded with a fourth-and-15 punt.

By the time the Vols had a fifth possession, they were trailing by 19.

"There is a ripple effect," Halzle said. "Instead of first-and-10, if you're at first-and-15 and gain 6, you're not in second-and-short, where you've got what you want. Now you're in second-and-long, so now you're working into third-and-mediums and third-and-longs, where there are more moving parts. Now you have to change your protection based on the stuff they're bringing, so it really is a ripple effect.

"If we're slowing down later, it's usually because we've done something to shoot ourselves in the foot earlier in the drive, and that's what was happening Saturday night."

The Vols lost late last season amid hostile environments at Georgia and at South Carolina, and they committed a combined 16 penalties in those defeats. In other words, it's not rocket science as far as what's happening.

"We've got to take it for what it was," senior running back Jabari Small said of Saturday's setback. "That was just all us. Those were self-inflicted wounds, but they're something that we can fix.

"It's something that we will fix."

Dissecting Milton

Tennessee has struggled offensively for two consecutive weeks, so it's natural for the quarterback to be receiving significant blame.

Halzle doesn't see it that way.

"Joe was really good in his decision making and with his calmness on the sidelines," Halzle said. "He kept the calm within the storm out there. In talking to him on the headset after every single drive, he was like, 'Cool. What do we have coming next?'

"The guy is really even-keeled. He was accurate with the football. The guy played a good game."

Yet playing a good game on an offense that didn't play well results in a disconnect that Halzle addressed as well.

"With the way we play, you've got to get yourself lined up," he said. "You're going to play fast. We're not breaking the huddle, and he's not telling everybody where to go.

"You've got to see the signal and get your cleats in the ground."

When asked if there was any aspect to Tennessee's offense in Gainesville that would have been better served with five-star freshman Nico Iamaleava at the helm, Halzle said, "No, because Joe is operating at a really high level."

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].