Sept. 17, 2011
BY DREW EDWARDS
(3-0, 1-0 SEC)
(2-1, 0-1 SEC)
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Tennessee's trip to The Swamp turned out to be a real stick in the mud.
Playing nearly the entire game without wide receiver Justin Hunter, Tennessee fell behind early and couldn't catch back up as No. 16 Florida claimed its seventh consecutive victory over the Vols, 33-23, on Saturday in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The Gators (3-0, 1-0 SEC) stifled the Vols' run game, which finished with minus-9 yards, although three sacks and several bad snaps cost the Vols' rushing total.
Running the ball in big chunks wasn't a problem for the Gators, though, and Tennessee (2-1, 0-1 SEC) couldn't find an answer for Chris Rainey.
Florida's 5-foot-9 senior running back had 212 yards of total offense, including 108 yards rushing on 21 carries. He also blocked a UT punt early in the second quarter that led to a field goal.
"Those guys are fast," said UT defensive end Willie Bohannon, talking about Rainey and Gators running back Jeff Demps. "It's hard to explain how fast they really are."
Rainey certainly showed his speed on an 83-yard touchdown reception with 8:08 remaining in the third quarter that gave the Gators a commanding 30-7 lead.
"That was a dagger," UT coach Derek Dooley said.
Still, the Vols didn't exactly wilt.
UT countered with two more touchdowns and a field goal to pull within 10 points, but the Gators ended any threat of a UT comeback when Matt Elam intercepted Tyler Bray's pass at the Florida 17 with less than two minutes remaining
Despite missing his favorite target, Bray connected for three passing touchdowns, one each to Marlin Lane, Da'Rick Rogers and Mychal Rivera. True freshman DeAnthony Arnett led UT with eight catches for 59 yards in place of Hunter.
Asked after the game if he felt like the Vols could have won with Hunter, Bray said, "There's always 'what ifs.' What if I didn't throw two interceptions and threw five touchdowns instead?"
Hunter, who emerged as Bray's favorite target late last season, landed awkwardly on his left leg on his only reception of the game, a 12-yard completion on the Vols' fourth play from scrimmage. The sophomore injured his left knee and watched the second half from the sidelines in street clothes.
Hunter's status for the rest of the season was not immediately clear after the game.
Still, his absence was pretty clear on the field, especially on third downs.
"It really hindered our offense," said Rogers, who had 62 yards on five catches after posting 100 yards in each of the Vols' first two games.
Said Dooley on Hunter's absence: "(Bray) didn't have his guy out there, either, No. 11. Everybody had to kind of change a little bit."
The Vols were able to change things up just before halftime after a slow start on offense.
Taking over at its own 11-yard line, Tennessee moved 89 yards in six plays and scored a touchdown on an 8-yard pass from Bray to tailback Marlin Lane with 1:43 to go before the break.
Florida, meanwhile, stalled in the second quarter after opening the game with two lengthy drives that resulted in an early 10-0 lead. In fact, the Gators scored on their first four possessions of the game, but the last two came by virtue of field position.
Rainey's blocked punt set the Gators up at the UT 14 and his 13-yard punt return gave Florida the ball at the UT 34. Both of those drives ended in field goals, though, and Tennessee's defense stiffened after surrendering 148 yards on Florida's first two possessions.
Gators quarterback John Brantley started a perfect 8-of-8, but ended the first half completing just four of his last nine passes. The senior finished 14-of-23 for 213 yards and two touchdowns.
Still, the Vols couldn't overcome Hunter's absence.
Opening the second half, Bray threw an interception which led to a Florida touchdown that gave the Gators a 23-7 lead. That helped set the stage for Rainey's 83-yard touchdown that helped put things out of reach.
"I hope it makes everybody better," Dooley said. "Next time we have our crowd noise going on third down, maybe we can handle it better. There's a lot of things we can evolve to. We're just not there yet. We've got to keep pushing them and keep progressing schematically."
The next chance for the Vols comes on Oct. 1 against Buffalo home, Tennessee's last non-conference game before a run of games that features visits from Georgia, South Carolina and LSU and a trip to Alabama.
And although he said he's not interested in moral victories, Dooley said he was proud of the way the Vols were able to claw back late in the game.
"There's no moral victories. But there's something to the way we kept playing," Dooley said. "And there was a lot of reasons to stick your head down and say, 'This isn't our day.' "