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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It appears Tennessee lost much more than a game during its Southeastern Conference opener at Florida on Saturday.
Chris Rainey and the No. 16 Gators dashed to a 30-7 lead on Rainey’s 83-yard touchdown catch with 8:08 left in the third quarter and held on for a 33-23 victory on a hot Saturday evening in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium that might have claimed the rest of Tennessee receiver Justin Hunter’s sophomore season.
Hunter, the Vols’ leading receiver, left the game after a 12-yard catch on his team’s opening drive.
“First of all, you hate it for the kid,” UT coach Derek Dooley said. “I mean it just makes you sick when you see it, because you know probably what happened. And then of course, you hate it for the team. It’s an energy-zapper.”
Florida (1-0, 3-0) had already set the tone, driving 80 yards in nine plays on its opening drive. Rainey had a 21-yard catch and Jeff Demps rushed for 28 yards to the Tennessee 1-yard line on the drive, which set up Trey Burton’s 1-yard touchdown catch from John Brantley on 3rd-and-goal.
Rainey rushed 21 times for 108 yards, caught two passes for 104 yards and blocked a punt that set up one of Caleb Sturgis’ career-high four field goals.
But three of those field goals were first-half moral victories for Tennessee’s defense, and after the Vols (0-1, 2-1) drove 89 yards in six plays to get am 8-yard TD pass from Tyler Bray to Marlin Lane with 1:43 left in the first half, they went to intermission trailing only 16-7.
Florida regained momentum on the second half’s first play from scrimmage when Josh Evans jumped high to intercept Bray and give Florida possession at the Tennessee 42. Bray had rolled right and was surprised Evans elevated as much as he did to catch a ball intended for Da’Rick Rogers.
“I thought I got it over him,” Bray said. “Da’Rick said he thought I got it over him. So the guy made a great play.”
Rainey had a 14-yard run that included a 15-yard late hit penalty to advance the ball to the Tennessee 15, and a play-action bootleg pass from Brantley gave Florida a 1st-and-goal at the 3.
The Vols defense made the Gators snap it four more times, but Burton powered into the end zone behind the right guard from a yard out on fourth down. Florida’s lead was 23-7, and the knockout punch from Rainey came 3 1/2 minutes later.
Rainey caught a dump-down pass from Brantley and dashed up the middle of the field for an 83-yard TD reception.
“Seeing John Brantley run out of the pocket,” Rainey said, “I saw him look at me, I turned, got the ball and I saw the biggest hole I’ve seen in my life and I took off.”
Dooley was encouraged that the Vols battled after the longest touchdown catch ever by a Florida running back. Bray, who was 26-of-48 passing for 288 yards, three TDs and two interceptions, threw a 14-yard TD pass to Rogers with 4:25 left in the third quarter and an 18-yard TD pass to tight end Mychal Rivera to conclude the game’s scoring with 4:46 remaining.
But the defining moment had passed — in a blur.
“There’s no moral victories, but there’s something to the way we kept playing and kept fighting,” Dooley said. “I mean, there were a lot of reasons to stick your head down and say, ‘Whew, this isn’t our day.’ It happened a couple of times in the first half, and then, of course, when they drop it down and Rainey looks like he’s in the Olympics and everybody’s chasing him. That was a dagger. …
“We don’t play the coverage right. We have a missed assignment. And then when we don’t have the assignment right, nobody else can catch him.”
Despite Bray’s 288 yards passing, the Vols were held to 279 yards of total offense. Tauren Poole rushed nine times for 18 yards. Lane had five carries for nine yards.
Dooley knows the Vols offense lacked balance but wasn’t aware of an immediate remedy. He said it’s hard to justify running the ball when you’re down three scores and can barely run to the line of scrimmage.
Florida was penalized 16 times for 150 yards. There were five pass interferences and a defensive holding from the Gators’ green secondary.
“Any win in the SEC is a positive,” first-year Florida head coach Will Muschamp said. “We have some things we have to clean up. … It’s week to week, especially with our guys. We’re going to look at what we did that was positive. …
“We’re going to play aggressive. We’re not going to play soft, I can tell you that.”
UT freshman receiver DeAnthony Arnett had a game-high eight catches for 59 yards. Rivera had five catches for 71 yards. Rogers also had five receptions, which produced 62 yards.
Tennessee true freshmen linebacker A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt looked like they belonged. Johnson tied fellow linebacker Austin Johnson for the team lead with seven tackles, and he forced and returned a fumble to the Florida 17 with 6:11 left in the third quarter.
Maggitt had two or three big hits, among his six tackles. Cornerback Marsalis Teague was effective for the most part when isolated in man-to-man coverage on Deonte Thompson.
Tennessee is off Saturday. It hosts Buffalo on Oct. 1.