GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Deeper and deeper the Tennessee football team fell into an orange-and-blue hole, and each time the Volunteers creeped closer to the light, a fast, noisy hand would shove them back down.
Tennessee again found Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium a house of horrors, as the 16th-ranked Gators beat the Vols for the seventh consecutive time Saturday afternoon, 33-23, in both teams' Southeastern Conference opener.
"I was most concerned coming this game about our ability to keep our composure," UT coach Derek Dooley said. "We hit a buzz saw and made a ton of mistakes early that put us in a hole; then every time we we felt like we were inching back, we wouldn't play well."
Things went wrong for the Vols (2-1) from the start. The Gators (3-0) easily drove down the field for a score on the game's first possession, and UT lost star sophomore receiver Justin Hunter on the Vols' fourth offensive play.
Hunter, who came in off two 100-yard receiving games, caught a pass for a first down but landed awkwardly on his left knee. He left the game and didn't return, leaving the field after the game on crutches.
"It was clear that it was a break in your spirit when you saw it happen," said Dooley, who said Hunter would get an MRI when the team returned to Knoxville. "The whole team saw it happen. You have to move on. I could tell when he went down that it had an effect on our team."
Florida's Chris Rainey affected the Vols the rest of the afternoon. The Gators' senior speedster finished with 104 yards rushing, 104 yards on two catches and the fifth blocked punt of his career, which Florida cashed into a second-quarter field goal that made it 13-0.
"I don't know if there's a more versatile player," first-year Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "Playing for Florida is very important to him, and that's important for me. He's a guy that's an example of what you want as a player and competitor."
Jeff Demps added 48 yards on the ground for Florida, which outrushed UT 134 to minus-9.
"There were a lot of times we were in position and they just ran around us and outran us," Dooley said. "They did exactly what we thought they would do because they are good coaches. They are going to get them the ball in space. Rainey is a great player and they do a really good job of using him the right way."
UT held Florida to three first-half field goals, and the Vols scored just before halftime to nab some momentum. They had the ball first in the second half, but Florida safety Josh Evans intercepted Tyler Bray, and the Gators cashed in on the sophomore quarterback's first pickoff of the season.
"I thought I got it over him," Bray said. "Even Da'Rick [Rogers, the intended receiver] said he thought I got it over him. Guy just made a great play."
Rainey broke the game open on Florida's next possession, racing 83 yards untouched after catching a short pass from quarterback John Brantley, who completed 14 of 23 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns. Dooley said the Vols missed an assignment on the play.
That forced UT to abandon its running game and rely even more on Bray's arm. Florida sacked him three times and hit him and pressured him all afternoon.
Bray finished 26-of-48 for 288 passing yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
"I think he got frustrated a few times, but that is just because he is competitive," Dooley said. "I am sure he did, but I give him credit because he kept playing."
Florida's defense was the toughest Bray has faced in his nine career starts.
"They're still going to say [I] struggled because of a good defense," he said. "I was definitely getting frustrated at times. We played Florida, it's a rival. You're going to get frustrated when things don't go your way."
Dooley talked during the week leading up to the game about scars, and his team left Gainesville with plenty of them.
"I told the team, though, that if you're going to compete for championships you're going to have to get scars on you," he said. "I've been saying this the whole season, that we don't have any scars on us, and we got plenty of them today, and it's good because we need them.
"We didn't handle the environment very well. We made a ton of mistakes. Hopefully this game will be a lesson for us in the future, next time we get in this situation."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...