GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Derek Dooley worried how Tennessee would respond when it got its first scars.
The Volunteers certainly left Gainesville, Fla. with their fair share.
Florida’s speedy tailbacks and talented defensive line bruised UT to a 33-23 victory Saturday afternoon in front of 90,774 in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
“I told the team if you are going to compete for championships, you are going to get scars on you,” Dooley said. “I’ve been saying this all season. We didn’t have any scars on us and today we got plenty of them.”
The biggest scar that could linger the rest of the season is the injury to sophomore receiver Justin Hunter, who hurt his left knee on UT’s opening drive. Hunter didn’t return and is possibly out for the rest of the season.
“It’s tough losing one of your go-to guys as a quarterback,” UT’s Tyler Bray said. “But we still had a whole three quarters to come back and make plays, which we failed to do.”
When Hunter went down, the Vols (2-1, 0-1 SEC) were already trailing 7-0. Florida (3-0, 1-0) took the opening kickoff and marched 80 yards in nine plays for a touchdown when quarterback John Brantley found a wide-open Trey Burton in the end zone on a 3rd-and-goal play from the UT 1-yard line.
The Vols’ first possession ended when Michael Palardy missed a 37-yard field goal. Florida added a field goal on its next drive to take a 10-0 lead late in the first quarter.
After UT’s next drive faltered, Florida’s Chris Rainey blocked a Palardy punt to give the Gators the ball inside UT’s 15-yard line.
The Vols’ defense held firm, but UF was able to tack on another field goal to extend its lead to 13-0. The Gators would eventually lead 16-0 before UT got on the scoreboard.
Helped by two pass inference penalties against Florida, Bray led the Vols on a six-play, 89-yard drive to cut UF’s lead to 16-7 with 1:43 left in the second quarter.
UT caught the Gators blitzing and Bray found an uncovered Marlin Lane out of the backfield on the 8-yard touchdown pass.
The Vols hoped to carry that momentum into the second half, but it quickly swung back in favor of the home team after one offensive play.
After Lane returned the kick-off to the UT 28-yard line, Bray was picked off by Florida’s Josh Evans at the UT 42.
“I thought I got it over him. Even Da’Rick said he thought I got it over him,” Bray said. “The guy just made a great play.”
The Gators would drive 42 yards in 7 plays to make the score 23-7. After a UT punt and a negative rushing play, Brantley dumped the ball off to Chris Rainey in the flat, and the 5-foot-9, 174-pound speedster outraced UT’s defense 83 yards for a touchdown to put UF up 30-7 with 8:08 left in the third quarter.
“They drop it down and Rainey looks like he’s in the Olympics and everybody’s chasing him,” Dooley said.
Rainey finished with 233 all-purpose yards, including 108 rushing and 104 receiving. Brantley was 14-of-23 for 213 yards and two touchdowns.
Tennessee would make the score 30-13 after Bray connected with Da’Rick Rogers for a 12-yard touchdown strike late in the third quarter.
Palardy added a field goal early in the fourth quarter to bring the Vols within two scores at 30-16.
Florida’s Caleb Sturgis kicked his fourth field goal of the game with 7:19 left to put the Gators up 33-16.
Bray’s third touchdown came on an 18-yard pass to tight end Mychal Rivera to end the scoring for the game.
Bray finished 26-of-48 for 288 yards and three touchdowns and two interceptions, including one to Florida’s Matt Elam at the UF 17-yard line with 1:49 remaining that essentially ended UT’s hopes for a comeback.
“You can’t win every game, every year,” Rogers said. “But football’s a game of adversity. We’ve just got to fight hard and work hard and come back strong.”