Florida Notches 7th Straight Win, Vols Crushed By Loss of Justin Hunter

GAINESVILLE:

On the Tennessee Vols first pass attempt of the game, Tyler Bray stepped up in the pocket on a third and 10 and found Justin Hunter for a first down. Hunter snagged the ball 12 yards upfield and attempted to cut back to the center of the field. Only his knee wouldn’t let him, buckling in the process. Immediately Hunter began writhing in pain. Tennessee’s players gathered around him. The Florida jumbotron showed the play a single time; the Gator fan base collectively groaned. And just like that the Tennessee curse was back, alive and well just when it seemed that Tyler Bray and the Vol offense were poised to exorcise the demons that have tormented the Vols for the past three years.

Enthusiasm was at a ten-year high in the state of Tennessee.

Then down went Hunter and as quickly as things had been going well in the Volunteer state, the Vols were back to square one. “It was clear,” Dooley said, “that it (the Hunter injury) was a break in their spirit when you see it happen, I mean the whole team sees it happen…I could tell right when he went down when I saw Tyler walk over there and all the offense it was going to affect them, but you’ve got play out of it.”

The Vols didn’t play out of it. Not well, anyway. Nor could they contain Chris Rainey who sliced and diced his way to over 100 yards rushing and over 100 yards passing.

 In the end, the seventh win in a row for the Gators looked a lot like the previous six, Florida was simply the better team in all facets of the contest. But what was achingly painful for Vol fans is this team never really got to see what it could do against the Gators with Justin Hunter.

“If you’re going to compete for championships, you’re gonna have to get scars on us. And we got plenty of them today,” Dooley said. 

Here are sixteen other observations from an afternoon in Gainesville.  

1. Florida goes 80 yards in 9 plays to take a 7-0 lead.

It’s the best the Gator offense will look all day and it also plays perfectly into Justin Wilcox’s defensive gameplan — avoid cramping.

It’s a hot day. Why chase a team around the field when you can simply allow them to score, preserving valuable fluids on a cloudy day in Florida?

2. Justin Hunter goes down clutching his left knee on Tyler Bray’s first pass attempt of the game.

Unbelievable. The latest in a string of awful luck for the UT athletic program. It’s a sickening feeling.  

Hunter goes off under his own power, but will not return to the game. Without him, the Vol offense, previously explosive, begins to look downright pedestrian.

It’s possible this is the worst offensive loss for the Vols since Jamal Lewis tore his ACL in the third game of the 1998 season. The difference back then? Travis Henry was Lewis’s back-up. The Vols have no such luxury at wide receiver. True freshman D’Anthony Arnett comes in and plays decently, but he doesn’t in Randy Moss’s words “take the top off the defense” like Justin Hunter did. This doesn’t happen to Alabama with Julio Jones or with Georgia with A.J. Green, yet as soon as the Vols finally have a top-ten draft pick at wideout he goes down.

Absolutely crushing.

“We’ll find out when he gets his MRI,” Dooley said after the game, “but there’s no indication that he’s okay.”

Read, it appears that Hunter is out for the season. It’s a crushing blow for a young team. When will Hunter be back at full speed? Maybe not until midway through his junior season, if then. (The only potential solace for the Vols is that Hunter will probably qualify for a medical redshirt.)

3. On the same drive that the Vols lose Hunter for the season, Michael Palardy misses a 37 yard field goal.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Palardy isn’t the answer for Tennessee at kicker.

Unfortunately for the Vols, there is no answer at kicker.

4. Random question: How does Charlie Weis know where to put his belt buckle?

I look up at the television screen and it appears to be a completely random placement. Like one day it could be by Weis’s throat and another day by his knees and he would look the exact same. How does he decide?

Also, this is not a very good Gator offense. Their receivers are average at best, their quarterback is average at best. They have one playmaker, Chris Rainey. So it should be possible to stop him.

Unless you’re Tennessee and you’ve been allowing Florida’s best playmaker to beat you for nearly a decade in a row.

5. Chris Rainey blocks a Michael Palardy punt.

On the previous play, the first of the second quarter, the Vols are facing a 3rd and 29. The 3rd and 29 is perfect, the first quarter in a single play.

On the next series Rainey tackles himself on a punt return just as he hits the open field. It’s clear by now that Rainey is the best player on the field for either team.  

6. How bad has the first half been for Tennessee? Derek Dooley benches Michael Palardy as punter.

Have you ever seen a punter benched before?

I don’t think I have.

7. The Vols put Tyler Bray in shotgun and go 89 yards without attempting a run to cut the Gator lead to 16-7.

It’s an acknowledgment by Dooley that the Vols cannot run the football. Something that he says can’t continue. “If we do (put Bray in the shotgun that often) we won’t win many games” Dooley said after the game. A frustrated Dooley continued, “It’s hard to justify running the football when you’re down three scores and every run you make has barely gotten to the line of scrimmage.”

8. Dooley and Muschamp end the first half with a final competition: who can scream louder at the refs?

Dooley is aruging that Da’Rick Rogers has been forced out-of-bounds so his catch should count.

Muschamp is arguing…something, I’m not sure what, he’s just furious. Perhaps he’s furious because every play seems to be reviewed. And those plays that aren’t reviewed feature penalties. This game isn’t being played very cleanly by either team.

9. On the first play after halftime, Tyler Bray throws his worst pass of the season, an absolutely indefensible floater down the sideline, and Florida cashes in with a score.

 The ballgame is effectively over when the Gators score on 4th and goal to go up 23-7. The Vols will get no closer than ten the rest of the way.

10. But then, salt in the wounds, Chris Rainey doesn’t tackle himself in the open field this time on a pass reception.

83 yards later, during which time Rainey could have paused and texted Derek Dooley, “Time to die, bitch,” the Gators are up 30-7 and the rout is on.

Later Rainey will say, “I seen the biggest hole in my life…then I just ran.”

From here the game that will not end continues. There are penalties galore, a ton of reviews, ulimately the game will last four hours. Along the way Tyler Bray takes hit after hit but stays in the pocket throwing on virtually every play. 

11. The Vols get a strip and Tyler Bray cashes in to cut the Gator lead to 30-13.

But, inexplicably, Derek Dooley goes for two. Even if the Vols convert the two point conversion they still have to score two touchdowns and convert another two-pointer. But if you miss the two-pointer you’ve guaranteed that you’re going to need three scores.

Later Dooley acknowledged he made the wrong decision, “Probably shouldn’t have done it,” he said. “It went against what I believe.” 

13. Not that it matters much considering Tennessee can’t snap the ball right now. Or run. At all.

I don’t understand the inability to snap. Florida fans saw this last year with Pouncey. Tyler Bray’s job is tough enough without having to worry about whether or not the ball is going to get to him. When the snaps reach him they’re down by his feet. Several times they roll back to him. Even the best quarterback in the SEC can’t win without any other offensive threats.

This contributes to the awful rushing stats. By the end of third quarter UT has -25 yards rushing.

The Vols will finish with negative yards rushing.

14. Proving that every questionable decision Derek Dooley makes comes back to bite him, the Vols have a 4th and 3 but can’t afford to go for the touchdown because they need three scores after the failed two point try.

So they kick a field goal to cut the score to 30-16.

15. Florida runs the ball on virtually every play for the rest of the game.

The clock is slowly milking away. The Gators add another field goal and the Vols add another touchdown.

It’s 33-23 and Tyler Bray continues to fling the ball down the field on every possession.

He finishes with 288 yards passing and three touchdowns. But also two interceptions.

After the game he’s asked if the Vols win this game with Justin Hunter. Bray replies: “We lost. You can’t really say. There is always what-ifs. What if I don’t throw two picks? What if I throw five touchdowns.”

The same what-ifs that the tent city natives all over the South will be asking after the Gators covered by .5 points.

If Derek Dooley just kicks the extra point the Vols cover. Instead, on a day when nothing went right, that’s yet another scar.

As the final seconds tick off the clock Justin Hunter, wearing an orange jumpsuit and with each arm atop a crutch, limps off the field. It’s the latest curse in a string of curses for the Volunteer athletic program.

The Vols came to Florida to prove they were back as a viable threat in the SEC. Instead they lost their best offensive weapon and left with as many questions as they’d entered with. For the Florida Gators on the other hand, it was more of the same, a win even when their program is down.

It’s time to be honest about this series, it’s a rivalry in name only. New coach, same result. No matter who they toss out there the Florida Gators absolutely own the Tennessee Volunteers.

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