KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — For months leading into the 2010 season, much of the talk about the Florida football program was on the Gators' offense and the strong potential for a high-octane passing game with drop-back quarterback John Brantley.
But while everyone else was talking offense, the Gator defense was hearing something else.
Luckily for Florida, the defense has taken that to heart.
With its offense still out of synch, particularly in the first half, the Florida defense rose to the occasion for the third consecutive week — grabbing two interceptions, forcing a fumble and holding the league's best rusher to 23 yards to help the No. 10 Gators to a 31-17 win over Tennessee in the SEC opener for both teams in front of 102,455 at Neyland Stadium.
The Gators (3-0) have six consecutive victories over the Vols (1-2), and with Saturday's win have won three straight in Knoxville for the first time in school history.
"The expectation for the defense is (pressure) has been put on us since the beginning of the year, with the great defenses that we've had — the '08 team, the '09 team," said sophomore cornerback Jeremy Brown, who had an interception Saturday. "Coach (Urban) Meyer tells us at Florida you play great defense. So the bar is set high, and we're just trying to live up to that expectation."
With its two interceptions against the Vols, Florida has 10 this season. The Gators also had six sacks and held Tennessee to 2-for-13 on third-down conversions.
More important, Florida held Tauren Poole to 23 of the Vols' 29 total rushing yards on 10 carries.
"We knew that he was an outstanding back and he was really the focal point of their offense, so we really this week made a conscious effort to be really gap-sound, do a great job running to the ball, corralling him and tackling," UF defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. "Our guys did a great job. They had 29 yards total rushing at the end of the day, and that's a great job against a really good rushing game."
Of the Gators' two interceptions, one came as the Vols seemed poised to take a 10-7 lead. With third and goal on the UF 3, quarterback Matt Simms' pass was picked off in the end zone by linebacker Jon Bostic. Then with 5:18 remaining and the Vols driving, safety Will Hill forced Poole to fumble after a catch, and freshman Matt Elam recovered at the 40-yard line to help seal the victory.
"We definitely pride ourselves on running to the ball and playing real hard and physical, and if you keep doing that, good things are bound to happen," senior defensive end Justin Trattou said. "That came in our favor today."
And in the offense's favor.
After rallying with an impressive performance in the second half of its game against South Florida last week, the Gators said they felt they were finally getting on track offensively.
Then came Saturday, and another slow start.
Florida has scored just 35 first-half points in three games — none in the first quarter — and has trailed after the opening quarter in each game. At halftime Saturday, Florida had 19 rushes for a total of 19 yards — the final 17 netting 6 yards. The Gators had just 75 passing yards and seven points — a 2-yard run by Mike Gillislee.
Florida also gave up two big scoring plays: a 49-yard pass from Simms to Denarius Moore to tie the score at 10 with 8:59 remaining in the third quarter, and a 35-yard pass from Simms to Justin Hunter to pull the Vols within 24-17.
"We had some mental mistakes, but that's something we'll get back to work and get cleaned up," Austin said. "But overall, I thought our defense played very well."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.