In a game filled with mistakes and miscues, redshirt senior running back Chris Rainey‘s 212 yards of offense and a raucous crowd at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium proved to be too much for the Tennessee Volunteers (2-1, 0-1 SEC), which fell 33-23 to the No. 16/17 Florida Gators (3-0, 1-0 SEC) in Gainesville, FL on Saturday.
Florida defeated Tennessee for the seventh-straight season in front of a sold-out crowd of 90,744 fans in The Swamp, a venue the Volunteers have not won at since 2003.
Rainey, who ran the ball 21 times for 108 yards and caught two passes for 104 yards, earned a touchdown on an 83-yard reception in the third quarter to help complete the first 100/100 game of his career. He also blocked the fifth punt of his career early in the second quarter, setting an all-time school record in the process.
The Gators began the contest by scoring 16 unanswered points. Sophomore running back Trey Burton caught a one-yard pass from redshirt senior quarterback John Brantley for the team’s first touchdown, completing a nine-play, 80-yard drive that opened the contest.
A 17-yard reception by redshirt senior wide receiver Deonte Thompson was followed by a 28-yard rush by senior RB Jeff Demps to set up the score, and Brantley went 5/5 through the air on the drive. He also completed his first eight passes of the game.
The Volunteers responded with a long drive of their own, but a missed 37-yards field goal by Tennessee kicker Michael Palardy gave the ball back to Florida. The Gators put together a 12-play, 68-yard drive as a response but failed to get in the end zone, settling for a 28-yard field goal from redshirt junior K Caleb Sturgis.
Florida also struggled with two short field opportunities, again settling for a pair of field goals in the second quarter. After Rainey’s blocked punt, the Gators ran a four-play drive that did not gain a yard; following a punt from the Vols’ end zone, Florida went just six yards in four plays and allowed Sturgis to put one through from 46 yards out to take a 16-0 lead with 8:31 remaining in the first half.
Volunteers signal caller Tyler Bray threw the first of his three touchdowns in the second quarter via an eight-yard strike to Marlin Lane to complete a six-play, 89-yard drive just under two minutes before halftime.
Leading 16-7 heading into the locker rooms, Florida hoped to regain their offensive momentum and stall the newfound success Tennessee found on that side of the ball.
Following a pass interference call that helped the Vols continue their touchdown drive, Gators junior safety Josh Evans
sought out to redeem himself and did just that, nabbing an interception on Tennessee’s first possession of the second half.
Rainey took his second hand-off of the drive 14 yards and drew a late hit penalty to put the ball in the red zone. Florida chipped away at the yardage before handing the ball to Burton for his second score of the day, a one-yard touchdown run on fourth and goal.
The Volunteers punted on the next drive, giving the Gators the ball on their own 20 after a touchback. Rainey lost three yards on a carry to the right side to start the series but caught from Brantley over the middle which he took to the house for his 83-yard score, putting Florida ahead 30-7 with 8:08 to play in the third quarter.
Down 23 points, Tennessee felt the pressure and began to chip away at their deficit. After the Vols punted yet again, Demps fumbled the ball on a rush up the middle and UT took advantage with a 14-yard slant from Bray to WR Da’Rick Rogers for a touchdown.
A holding penalty on the ensuing kickoff forced UF to start at their own 10. Two short rushes and a pair of incomplete passes led to a punting situation, which senior David Lerner shanked just 22 yards to the Gators’ 31-yard-line.
Bray saw an opportunity and, even though his offense was backed up following a bad snap, completed consecutive 18-yard and eight-yard passes, the latter of which found the end zone for his second touchdown of the afternoon.
With Florida starting to see their lead slip away, Gators offensive coordinator Charlie Weis relied on Rainey to bring the ball down field. UF’s speedster touched the ball seven times on Florida’s 12-play, 50-yard drive, which resulted in a 42-yard field goal by Sturgis, his fourth of the game.
The Volunteers would not go down without a fight. Tennessee started the next possession at their 40-yard-line, and Bray threw eight passes on nine plays, totaling 54 yards through the air (60 total) and ending the series with a 18-yard touchdown pass.
Getting the ball back with 1:49 to play, the Vols again tried to make a move. After moving the ball 39 yards to the Gators’ 45-yard-line, Bray threw his second pick of the game to sophomore safety Matt Elam.
Florida’s defense, though it nabbed two interceptions and registered three sacks on the afternoon, failed to convert a number of major opportunities and was easily the most penalized unit on the field.
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Jelani Jenkins, who had six tackles and a sack on Saturday, dropped two potential interceptions and committed a pass interference penalty. Freshman cornerback Marcus Roberson, the victim of two pass interference calls and a holding penalty, also failed to catch two balls that hit him in the hands.
Evans, sophomore CB Cody Riggs and freshman S De’Ante Saunders also committed pass interference penalties, giving the Gators six total. As a team, Florida committed an astounding 16 miscues for 150 yards, significantly more than Tennessee, which was also mistake prone with 10 penalties for 94 yards.
The Gators outgained the Vols by 68 yards but committed penalties that provided opportunities for UT to continue drives that otherwise would have fallen short. Florida held Tennessee to -9 rushing yards, but UT outgunned UF 288-213 through the air.
Brantley finished 14/23 for 213 yards and two touchdowns, while Bray completed 26-of-48 passes for 288 yards with three scores. The latter was intercepted twice but had falls find his opponent’s hands quite often throughout the contest.
Heading out of Gainesville for their first road game under head coach Will Muschamp, the Gators will face the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, KY. The game will air live at 7 p.m. on either ESPN or ESPN2.
Photo Credit: John Raoux/Associated Press