Tennessee’s defensive coordinator explains what happened on Florida’s game-winning TD

You’ve seen Florida’s epic 63-yard touchdown pass to beat Tennessee at the final gun, haven’t you? If you haven’t, rectify that mistake right now, because you clicked this story to read analysis of the play.

Ok, you’ve seen it now, phew.

By breaking Tennessee’s coverage on the play up into two separate parts, we can see how one part of the unit worked with the other, and how one slight mistake doomed the play.

Tennessee’s defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop, broke the play down for media on Tuesday.

Tennessee didn’t really do anything wrong. The Vols just defended it in an interesting way up front.

The main question here is: Why did Tennessee choose to tightly defend an area of the field that didn’t really matter all that much?

Coming out of a timeout, you’d think Tennessee would be expecting Florida to attack just beyond this box, to get a workable field goal, or to take a deep shot to the end zone. At worst, you’re probably looking at a titanic field goal attempt by giving up anything inside this orange box. Eddy Pineiro has quite a leg, but the point remains.

Shoop confirmed they were worried about Pineiro.

“We thought they were gonna play for that 35-40 yard area and kick a long field goal, he said. “To describe the play as a Hail Mary is an inaccurate description of the play.”

The last part is where I kinda disagree with what Shoop said while understanding what he means. In the literal sense, Franks’ hookup with Cleveland is almost exactly like the original Hail Mary that the Dallas Cowboys pulled off in 1975.

What Shoop probably means is that Florida didn’t come out looking like they were going to run the conventional Hail Mary with everyone running to the end zone, so Tennessee didn’t take a timeout. When the ball was snapped, Shoop’s gamble was right.

More specifically, Franks and Cleveland ad-libbed off of a play that Florida backup Luke Del Rio tweeted was the same play call Florida as this backbreaker against Tennessee in 2015.

The Vols do deserve some kudos, because they rush four and force Florida QB Feleipe Franks to roll out, increasing the chances that he’d make an uncomfortable throw. But per Shoop, it wasn’t uncomfortable enough.

“So [Franks] looked at [receiver] one, looked at two, looked at three, started to run,” Shoop said. “Oddly, I feel as if it had been the second or third quarter of the game he’da just run. But then he said ‘what the — I can’t run, I gotta do something.’ And somehow someway he made eye contact with Cleveland you actually see them point.”

There’s a linebacker, Quart’e Sapp, who’s a de facto QB spy on Franks in the GIF above because running back Mark Thompson initially stayed into block. Tennessee was at least a bit worried about Franks taking off. Franks said postgame he was close to running it. But given where Florida was and the time left on the clock, if Franks takes off, the clock probably runs out, and things go to overtime. Shoop says he wanted Sapp to come down and exert more pressure.

If Franks notices the dump-off opportunity here (Thompson isn’t pointing at something; he’s calling for the ball because he doesn’t have anything else to do) and lobs the ball to his running back, freed up by that pursuing linebacker, the clock probably runs out on Florida.

So I’d argue Tennessee didn’t need to be white-on-rice tight in this no-man’s land.

The Vols could likely have gotten away with keeping everything in front of them and letting a completion happen in that box. Make the safe tackle, and the clock’s most likely going to run out if any yards after the catch were gained. But they weren’t comfortable taking that chance.

Tennessee is going to drop into cover 6, with three players in its secondary. Cover six is when two defenders to the wide side of the field defend one deep quarter of the field each. The other safety defends the remaining deep half of the field. The corner defending WR Tyrie Cleveland at the top of the screen at the line of scrimmage will carry Cleveland and pass him off to the safety helping over top. Shoop confirmed that the coverage call was quarter-quarter-half.

In practice, it almost worked.

But Tennessee safety Micah Abernathy (who gets circled by the CBS telestrator) drifts a little too far into center field. He stops gaining enough depth and doesn’t flip hips until Cleveland is nearly even with him. At that point, even the most fluid athlete is dead in the water. Cleveland throws the hand up and runs right by him.

The margin for error for high-caliber athletes is so thin.

This play was covered, until it wasn’t.

“We took away the play that they ran, which is the irony of the whole thing really, right?” Shoop said. And he’s right.

Plenty of people question why Tennessee didn’t have an extra DB on the field. They lined up in nickel, with five DBs instead of dime (six DBs). Head coach Butch Jones cited injuries as the reason they didn’t go dime. Even with that, perhaps putting receiver Marquez White at the goal line to bat the thing down could have been the move. If any team has experience with how Hail Marys work, it’s the Vols.

But the coverage the Vols did draw up worked for what it was designed to do. But no coverage is perfect.

Sometimes, you can scheme it up as much as you’d like, but players make plays.

Franks and Cleveland have practiced this a few times.

On this play, practice made perfect.

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