GAINESVILLE, Fla. — There were some highs, plenty of lows and then there was junior running back John Kelly on Saturday afternoon. He was a beacon of light as Tennessee boarded a bus headed back to Knoxville after a stunning 26-20 loss to Florida inside The Swamp.
"It was a hard fought game," Kelly said. "I thought we had some opportunities to make a couple of plays including myself. We just came up a little short."
That's typical Kelly, as the Michigan native was focused more on his team than himself in the postgame. Kelly finished with 237 total yards, with 141 of that on the ground. For the second-straight game, he was Tennessee's leading receiver and rusher. Much like the Georgia Tech game 13 days ago, he got stronger as the game went along. He had 150 total yards in the final frame, as he brought Tennessee all the way back to tie the game with under a minute to play.
"During the whole game, I'm trying to run as hard as I can," Kelly said. "Just make a play every time I get the ball in my hands. I try to keep my stamina up throughout the entire game."
A clearly dejected Butch Jones owned the loss in the postgame. He noted that his tailback made enough plays tonight and its Kelly's drive that will continue to drive this team.
"That's his will to win," Jones said. "He's an extremely competitive young man. He ran behind his pads. He ran with great passion and energy and make no mistake, he's the heart and soul of our football team. I think our players feed off of him and I can't say enough about his effort tonight."
And the will clearly changed late in the first half when Tennessee's running game and Kelly flipped a switch.
"Our offensive staff just basically told us that we need to man up," Kelly said. "That's what it's all about. Our guys have to make the blocks and me and the other running backs have to hit the hole and do our jobs."
And his leadership will be key going forward as Tennessee goes back out of conference next week before playing Georgia at home in two weeks.
"I just try to motivate my guys to stay in it," Kelly said. "Just have the snap and clear mentality. We aren't going to play the blame game and nothing like that. We are going to stay together and keep pushing. It's a long season. It's only week three and we have some more fight in us."
Many will talk about a sequence in the third quarter with Tennessee 1st-and-goal from the one-yard line. A drive that saw Kelly dominate the Florida defense before a pass to Marquez Callaway would set up the orange in what seemed like the perfect spot to go back to Kelly.
Three passes, one penalty and an interception later, many were left scratching their head as to what had just happened.
"I trust coach (Larry) Scott's playcalling all the way," Kelly said. "Any running back would want it, but it didn't bother me at all."
And much like Kelly's running on Saturday evening, a clear stiff arm to any notion that he doesn't always have his programs back.