After a disappointing 37-20 loss to the 3-0 Florida Gators on Saturday, Tennessee sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson became one of the few lights in an otherwise dim aftermath.
Early in the third quarter, Johnson appeared in a Wildcat formation, rushing for a total of five yards and a touchdown that gave Tennessee just what they needed to pull away from the Gators in the second half. Unfortunately for the Vols, the rest of the team failed to follow in his footsteps.
Johnson said he made sure not to hand over the ball, and while he didn't do many reads on the play, he focused on looking for the hole and making the play. He said the difference in the game was more mental than physical.
"We got hit with some big plays and we got frustrated with that on the defense and that's what hit us the most," Johnson said.
Confident in the wildcat formation due to previous high school experience, Johnson said that the Vols have been practicing the formation since the first game. He said running the Wildcat isn't a big deal for him and he feels confident in the role.
"I ran it quite a few (times)," Johnson said. "In the fourth quarter, we ran it a lot in high school."
Head coach Derek Dooley was hesitant to put the blame for any one aspect on the team, but did say Johnson's drive was a helpful moment in the game.
"Putting him back there on short yardage and goal line, that was a big help," Dooley said.
Though he still managed to throw for 257 yards and two touchdowns, starting quarterback Tyler Bray felt the pressure from the defense early on with two interceptions and only completing half of his passes.
"I got sacked twice," Bray said. "I don't think I'd been sacked at all (previously)."
He said he felt the team just needed to make plays, with players like Johnson continuing to step up in tough situations.
"When it comes to crunch time, the big guys need to step up and make plays and we didn't," Bray said.
The defeat left Dooley at a loss for words.
"We thought we could go toe-to-toe with them for four quarters," Dooley said. "There's no excuses. We didn't get it done. Give Florida credit. They did what they needed to do. I don't know what else to say."
Junior defensive lineman Daniel McCullers said that the coach's post-game message came as a surprise. He said the big issue for the team is remembering that this isn't the end and there's a whole season ahead.
"They just told us to keep battling," McCullers said. "We have a great team, it was just one game. We have a long season ahead of us. We're going to continue to work hard and practice hard so we can keep getting better every day."