Game recap: Florida 33, Tennessee 23
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The grand debut the Tennessee offense had planned only lasted a handful of plays.
An unexpected change in the cast for the Vols altered the script.
UT came out firing in its first real chance to make an impact on the national scene against No. 16 Florida on Saturday, and on the fourth snap the attack looked strikingly similar to the one that had carved up two opponents to set up a high-profile showdown at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Tyler Bray stood in the pocket, fired a rope to Justin Hunter and the receiver turned to make a cut upfield for extra yardage like he'd been piling up early in the season. But in the process, something apparently went wrong in his knee — and the problems compounded from there in a 33-23 loss to the Gators.
"When we lost Justin, that obviously hurt," UT coach Derek Dooley said. "We didn't handle the environment well, we didn't handle it when Justin went down very well, just emotionally, and we made a ton of mistakes.
"I think it was clear it was a break in your spirit when you saw it happen. The whole team sees it happen, and you've got to move on. It's part of it," he said. "I could tell right when he went down, I saw Tyler walk over there and our whole offense looking. It affected them, and you have to play out of it because it's part of the game. It's very unfortunate, but that's the way it is and we had to play left-handed the rest of the game."
Tennessee Stat Book
Exactly how long the Vols (2-1, 0-1 SEC) might have to play without Bray's right-hand man won't be known until further tests are done, and Dooley indicated the knee is likely not "OK."
Hunter left the stadium on crutches with just the one catch for 12 yards, and the rest of the Vols on offense didn't leave with what they were hoping for either against the Gators (3-0, 1-0).
Bray had his first significant error of the season on the first snap of the second half, an interception that led directly to points for Florida.
Center James Stone struggled throughout the game to deliver the ball to Bray in shotgun, rolling numerous snaps back to him.
And while Da'Rick Rogers was able to add another receiving touchdown, tight end Mychal Rivera had another productive outing and Bray posted 288 more yards with three touchdowns, the Vols weren't quite the same home-run offense without Hunter.
"Justin is an impact player," Rivera said. "He's probably good for at least 14 points out there, he's good for taking away the safety and the corner. It's a huge impact, but we've just got to overcome that and continue to grow as an offense even without him.
"I feel it lingered a little bit, but we've just got to overcome that and not worry about just one player, even though he's a huge part of our offense."
No player had been bigger for the Vols in those early victories, and even across the conference Hunter stood alone as the top receiver after two weeks with 302 yards on 16 catches with a pair of touchdowns.
But without him in the formation, more attention was shifted to Rogers, the pressure from an aggressive Florida defense was dialed up on Bray and the weaknesses in the running game were exposed.
"I mean, it's tough losing one of your go-to guys as a quarterback," Bray said. "But, hey, we still had a whole three quarters to make plays — which we failed to do.
"It wasn't necessarily (lack of) focus, we just had to get our heads into it. We played, not scared, but like we didn't really know what we were doing."