GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Tennessee came to The Swamp unbeaten and flush with the swagger of youth. It left beaten and scarred.
That won’t, however, be a bad thing, in the long run.
But for Saturday, a seventh consecutive loss to Florida was hard to swallow.
Score this one 33-23 for the No. 16 Gators, who hit the Vols with tough shots early in each half and kept them at arm’s length.
“I told the team,’’ said UT coach Derek Dooley, “if you’re going to compete for championships, you’re gonna have to get scars.
“We didn’t have any. We got plenty of ’em today and it’s good.’’
The first one came early.
Florida (3-0, 1-0 SEC) set the tone in this Eastern Division rivalry from the outset before a Ben Hill Griffin crowd of 90,477 and a CBS national audience.
The Gators won the toss, elected to receive and raced 80 yards in a hurry-up offense for a 7-0 lead on John Brantley’s 1-yard pass to Trey Burton.
“I was the most concerned about our composure,’’ said Dooley, “and we hit a buzz saw.
“Florida was prepared to play and we didn’t handle it well.’’
It was almost a flashback to last week when Cincinnati struck for a fast score.
“We’ve got to come out with more focus,’’ said linebacker Austin Johnson, “and make sure we get a three-and-out the first drive.’’
Tennessee Stat Book
Falling behind Cincinnati early is one thing. Florida is another.
The Gators had the tools, especially on defense, to make Tennessee’s first road game and sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray’s first start outside the state borders an uphill battle after that.
Losing star receiver Justin Hunter to a knee injury on UT’s fourth play only added to the difficulty factor.
Still, the Vols (2-1, 0-1 SEC) muddled through the first half, fortunate to trail only 16-7.
And they knew momentum awaited when they would receive the kickoff to start the third quarter.
What they received, though, was a one-two knockout punch.
A Josh Evans interception set up one Florida touchdown, and soon thereafter Chris Rainey’s 83-yard pass reception score blew the lid off.
Bray’s first interception of the year came on UT’s first snap of the second half. Florida’s Evans made a leaping pickoff at the Tennessee 42.
“I thought I got it over him,’’ Bray said. “The guy made a great play.’’
The Gator offense was quickly knocking on the door. The Vols almost kept it shut.
On fourth-and-goal from the 1, however, Burton fought into the end zone for the score and a 23-7 lead.
Florida’s next possession was a lightning bolt. Brantley flipped a short pass to Rainey and Rainey sprinted the final 80 yards of the 83-yard score for a 30-7 lead.
“That,’’ said Dooley, “was a dagger.’’
Bray accounted for all of UT’s touchdowns, passing 4 yards to Marlin Lane in the second quarter, 12 to Da’Rick Rogers in the third and 18 to Mychal Rivera in the fourth.
He was 26-of-48 passing for 288 yards and was intercepted twice. A third pick was wiped off by a pass-interference flag.
The Gators, in fact, were so intent on defusing Tennessee’s air attack they were penalized six times for pass interference.
All of their interference with UT’s running game, on the other hand, was legal. The Vols had 21 attempts for a net of minus-9 yards.
“It’s hard to justify running the ball when you’re down three scores,’’ said Dooley.
Florida had 347 yards of offense, but thwarted its own cause with 16 penalties for 150 yards.
Rainey was an all-around pest. He rushed for 108 yards, caught two passes for 104 yards and blocked a punt for good measure that led to one of Caleb Sturgis’ four field goals.
“I don’t know if there’s a more versatile player,’’ said Florida first-year coach Will Muschamp.
Florida was a decisive winner in the kicking game.
Sturgis was perfect on field goals. UT’s Michael Palardy hit from 20 yards in the fourth quarter but missed from 37 on Tennessee’s opening drive when an answer to Florida’s touchdown would have been helpful.
Short punts plagued the Vols in the first half, as did a couple of penalties in the return game.
“The whole second quarter our kicking game was killing us,’’ Dooley said. “We played on our half of the field the second quarter but we hung in there.’’
They hung in there, but never could mount a comeback.
After two easy wins at home over Montana and Cincinnati, this was a graduation to what Dooley and his players called “big-boy” football.
Florida was bigger this day.
Tennessee has the scars to prove it.