Gators gore Vols, 33-23

Tennessee lost more than its chief weapon when sophomore wideout Justin Hunter limped to the sidelines on an injured knee with 9:11 left in the first quarter of Saturday's game at No. 16 Florida. The Vols seemed to lose their composure, too.

Even Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley blamed Hunter's injury for "breaking their spirit" and sending Tennessee's players into a funk that resulted in a 16-0 second-quarter deficit. The Big Orange rallied several times but never got even en route to a 33-23 setback.

The Gators (3-0 overall, 1-0 SEC) have beaten Tennessee seven times in a row, with four of the wins coming at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville.

Not surprisingly, Tennessee's youthful players struggled to handle the decibel level of The Swamp. The Vols showed a lack of focus at times and a lack of poise at others.

"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."

Hunter's injury occurred when he landed awkwardly after reeling in a 12-yard completion from Tyler Bray that produced the Vols' initial first down of the afternoon. Seeing their star player hobble off the field seemed to take the starch right out of Tennessee's players.

Already down 7-0 after watching Florida march 80 yards in nine plays with the opening kickoff, the Vols quickly saw things go from bad to worse following Hunter's injury.

First, Michael Palardy hooked a 38-yard field goal attempt that could've put Tennessee on the scoreboard. The deficit swelled to 10-0 moments later when Florida's Caleb Sturgis nailed a 28-yard field goal late in the first quarter. A Palardy punt was blocked by Chris Rainey on the second play of the second quarter, setting up a 30-yard Sturgis field goal for a 13-0 lead. Florida tacked on another field goal - this one a 46-yarder - to go up 16-0 with 8:31 left to the break.

Tennessee finally showed some life just before halftime, driving 89 yards in six plays to whittle the deficit to 16-7. The big plays were a 22-yard pass to Da' Rick Rogers, a 20-yarder to tight end Mychal Rivera and two pass interference penalties. The touchdown came on an eight-yard flip from Bray to freshman tailback Marlin Lane with 1:43 left to halftime.

Tennessee lost its momentum, however, when Bray threw his first interception of the season on the first scrimmage play of the second half. Seven plays later a one-yard burst by Trey Burton bumped Florida's lead to 23-7.

The electrifying Rainey essentially put the game on ice moments later, taking a short flip from Gator quarterback John Brantley, turning on the jets and racing 83 yards for a TD that widened the gap to 30-7 with 8:08 remaining.

"That was a dagger," Dooley said.

Still, the Vols kept fighting. Bray hit Da'Rick Rogers with a 13-yard scoring pass that pulled Tennessee within 30-13, then Palardy booted a 19-yard field goal on the third play of the fourth quarter that narrowed the gap to 30-16. Florida launched a five-minute drive at this point, however, capped by a 42-yard field goal that boosted its lead to 33-16 with 7:19 to go.

Still, the valiant Vols continued to compete. Bray hit Rivera with a 17-yard TD pass that trimmed the deficit to 33-23 with 4:46 left but Gator safety Matt Elam intercepted a Bray overthrow at the Florida 17-yard line with about two minutes to play, ending Tennessee's faint comeback hopes.

Bray finished 26-of-48 passing for 288 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. He has now thrown multiple-TD passes nine games in a row, extending his own school record.

Bray might have been even more successful if he'd had a ground game at his disposal. Tailback Tauren Poole carried nine times for just 18 yards and the Vols finished with a putrid minus-9 net yards on 21 rushing attempts as a team.

Brantley completed 14 of 23 passes for 213 yards. Unlike Bray, he didn't lose his best weapon in the opening quarter. Rainey finished with 108 rushing yards on 21 carries and 104 receiving yards on two catches.

The heated nature of the rivalry showed up in the penalty stats. The Vols were flagged 10 times for 94 yards. The Gators were penalized 16 times for 150 yards, including six pass interference calls.

Despite the loss, Dooley saw some encouraging signs.

"There's no moral victories. But there's something to the way we kept playing," the Vol coach said. "And there was a lot of reasons to stick your head down and say, 'This isn't our day.' "

Tennessee (2-1 overall, 0-1 SEC) has an open date next week before hosting Buffalo on Oct. 1.

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