KNOXVILLE — Tennessee’s Hunter preyed on panthers Saturday. So did many others wearing orange.
Wide receiver Justin Hunter became the ninth Volunteers player to make three touchdown catches in a game and Tennessee tuned up for Florida with a 51-13 victory against Georgia State in the home opener at Neyland Stadium.
The 6-foot-4 Hunter finished with eight receptions for 146 yards and fellow junior Tyler Bray completed 18 of 20 passes for 310 yards and four TDs in 2 ½ quarters for the Vols (2-0).
It looked like the same Hunter who started fast last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury at Florida. He was more comfortable psychologically Saturday than he was against North Carolina State last week in Atlanta.
“I had one game under my belt … so I was real comfortable,” Hunter said.
Georgia State’s defense produced a comfort zone, too.
“I think it was like gifts out there,” Hunter said. “I think the defense was playing a lot of inside zone coverage and stuff.”
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley didn’t have to be a former Virginia receiver to see that Hunter was contending with loose coverage.
“They were giving him free access,” Dooley said. “So it’s not going to be like that next week. They’re gonna put their hands on him.”
Bill Curry’s outmanned Panthers (0-2), which opened the season with a 33-6 home loss to South Carolina State, held the attention of the sparse crowd (87,821 announced) for more than a quarter. The Vols were understandably flat with the FCS opponent sandwiched between N.C. State and Florida.
“They had seven fumbles and we recovered one,” Dooley said. “So that’s kind of a sign of the tenacity.”
Still, it was soon apparent that Tennessee was celebrating tight end Mychal Rivera’s 22nd birthday with a cupcake for an opponent. Rivera caught four passes for 70 yards in the first half, helping the Volunteers score 21 points in the final 11 minutes of the second quarter to take a 28-6 lead at intermission. Rivera’s 19-yard TD reception gave the Vols a 14-6 lead with 10:58 left in the half.
Bray overthrew an open Rivera on a play-action pass on the game’s first play from scrimmage, but missed only once the rest of the day. Bray didn’t return after throwing a 19-yard TD pass to Hunter which gave the Vols a 41-6 lead with 8:02 left in the third quarter. He had completed 13 straight passes at that point, and backup Justin Worley extended the streak to 15 before throwing an interception on a batted ball.
“It’s a pretty impressive stat line,” Dooley said.
Hunter caught TD passes of 25 and 11 yards in the final 4:11 of the first half.
“I think he’s better (than before the injury),” Rivera said. “I mean, he’s really determined to run those routes and get those balls.”
The strong-armed 6-foot-6 Bray made it look easy.
“I told you guys, Tyler’s the best quarterback in the country,” Rivera said. “That’s how I feel. He goes through his progressions. He has, you know, a 6-6 frame. He sees over the offensive line and he throws perfect balls.”
Bray was quick to mention one of his incompletions — a deep pass intended for Cordarrelle Patterson when he could’ve moved the chains with a short pass — and needled Rivera for his praise.
“I just think Mike’s sucking up,” Bray said with a smile. “I mean, he wants more passes.”
Patterson had three catches for 71 yards and returned three kickoffs 106 yards, including a 61-yarder, in his Neyland Stadium debut.
“There was shock and awe at the speed of Patterson,” Curry said. “The ball was kicked a few yards into the end zone and he brought it out. I was praying that he wouldn’t.”
Devrin Young returned a punt 35 yards, and probably ran 85 yards while doing it.
Dooley’s primary concerns were kicker Michael Palardy and the running game. Palardy missed a PAT and a 39-yard field goal, and you could hear the fans displeasure each time. You could also essentially hear their displeasure when they cheered loudly when backup Derrick Brodus’ 25-yard field goal gave UT a 44-6 lead in the fourth quarter.
Georgia State quarterback Ben McLane was 18-of-41 passing for 176 yards and one interception, and absorbed much punishment in the process. He did score on a 12-yard run with 58 seconds remaining, the third-year program’s first offensive touchdown against an FBS team.
“The way he (McLane) finished the game was demonstrative of the person he is,” Curry said.
Tennessee’s Rajion Neal had 13 carries for 65 yards and two TDs. Donald Russell led the Panthers with 73 yards on 15 carries.
Dontavis Sapp made his first career start and Willie Bohannon made his fifth in place of injured linebackers Herman Lathers (shoulder) and Curt Maggitt (toe). Dooley said Lathers and Maggitt wouldn’t have played Saturday regardless of the opponent.
“So we need to get them back,” he said.
Notes: Redshirt freshman center Mack Crowder, a Tennessee High alum, debuted for the Vols. … UT defensive lineman Daniel Hood received hearty congratulations and helmet taps from numerous teammates after his 18-yard kickoff return in the game’s final minute.
Tennessee hosts No. 24 Florida on Saturday at 6 p.m. The Gators (1-0, 2-0) won 20-17 at Texas A&M on Saturday in the Aggies’ first Southeastern Conference game. Florida linebacker Jelani Jenkins was one of four Gators defenders to leave the A&M game with an injury.
The Vols and Hunter are eager to try and snap a seven-game losing streak against the Gators.
“I mean, it’s the game I got hurt in,” Hunter said, “so, you know, I’m gonna try to go all out and try to score as many touchdowns as I can for the team.”