GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Following consecutive mediocre performances against Western Kentucky and Oregon, junior quarterback Justin Worley went from the unquestioned signal caller of the Vols to a quarterback competing against three freshman for his job.
At 1:40 p.m. on Saturday, less than two hours before the kickoff of one of the biggest rivalry games of the year for the Vols, it was made official that freshman Nathan Peterman and not Worley would be under center in The Swamp.
The decision did not pay off as the Vols fell to the No. 19 Florida Gators, 31-17, inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday.
Peterman's debut in Gainesville, only 71 miles from his hometown of Fruit Cove, Fla., went catastophically bad as he was pulled in favor of Worley before halftime after the Vols offense mustered only 31 yards and committed four turnovers behind the freshman.
Peterman finished with a meager 4-for-11 passing for 5 yards, two interceptions and two fumbles.
"In the first half, we were never able to get in any type of rhythm offensively," head coach Butch Jones said. "Against a defense like that, you have to get into a rhythm. You have to generate first downs and keep the moving the chains, and obviously we weren't able to that."
While the offense clicked at a more rapid rate under Worley in the second half, the former starter was far from impressive, completing 10 of his 23 attempts for 149 yards while throwing a touchdown and two interceptions.
However, Worley did manage to keep the Vols within striking distance late.
"Not being out there in the first half, you kind of just have to take a mental picture of what the defense is doing," Worley said about having to come off the bench. "I knew I had to stay in it mentally."
Worley took a simplistic approach upon having his number called.
"I was just really trying to go through my reads and be sound in my fundamentals," Worley said. "I didn't really say alright, you know we got to be aggressive and we can't turn the ball over and things like that, it was really just go out there and take what the defense is giving us and be sound in what I'm doing."
The Vols struck first off of a pick-six by freshman defensive back Devaun Swafford, who stepped in front of a Jeff Driskel pass and returned it 62 yards.
In total, the Vols defense forced three turnovers. The other two came in the form of recovered fumbles.
"We have to (force turnovers)," Jones said. "We're playing good football teams. SEC football is the best football in the country, so everyone has good players. It's about being resilient. Are they going to make their plays? Yes, but it's having that mental conditioning, that mental toughness to play the next snap and always going for the football, and I saw a little bit of that today."
The pass was the last for Driskel, who left the field on crutches with an apparent ankle injury. Florida head coach Will Muschamp announced after the game that Driskel would be out for the season.
Driskel's injury ended up being a nightmare for the Vols as redshirt junior quarterback Tyler Murphy stepped in under center and torched the Vols with a combination of his arm and legs.
He finished the day going 8-for-14 passing with 134 yards and a touchdown through the air paired with 84 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries on the ground. The Vols never took the lead again after his 52-yard strike to Solomon Patton in the second quarter.
"He (Murphy) adds another wrinkle obviously, he's a great athlete," Jones said. "We didn't do a great job defensively of containing the football.
"Those are things moving forward that when we start winning games like this on the road, that's assignment-sound, that's the eye discipline. We can't make those catastrophic mistakes."
Next on the schedule for the Vols is a matchup against South Alabama from the Sun Belt conference. The game will kick off at 12:21 p.m. inside Neyland Stadium and will be televised on the SEC Network.