GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Despite trailing 16-7 at halftime, Tennessee senior linebacker Austin Johnson had many reasons to believe the Volunteers were about to turn around their Saturday afternoon game against Florida.
"We were feeling confident," he said. "We'd been down 16-nothing, but they'd been on our side of the field the whole second quarter. Then we'd gotten that touchdown late [before the half]. Given what could have happened, we felt great."
Someone basing his total opinion of the Vols' ultimate 33-23 loss to the No. 16 Gators will no doubt look at that final score and believe neither the offense or defense did well. And both sides need to improve for the Big Orange to have a bigger year than last season's 6-7 finish.
But take away Chris Rainey's 83-yard scoring catch -- the longest in Gators history by a running back -- and the Vols would have held the ball late with a chance to win, despite running for a negative-9 yards on 21 carries.
"We definitely did a good job in the red zone," UT defensive back Prentiss Wagner said. "We were all real positive at halftime. We just never could get over the hump."
Any defense would have felt positive after the first half the Vols put together. Consider the following three Gators possession from the second quarter:
-- They got the ball on the UT 13 following a blocked punt. The Vols held them to a field goal and a 10-0 lead.
-- They got the ball on the UT 34 following a punt. UT forced another made field goal.
-- They got the ball on the UT 47 following a third punt and forced a Florida punt.
Tennessee's defense held Florida to 13 yards on 14 plays in the second quarter.
"The defense did a great job after the blocked punt," said Vols coach Derek Dooley. "There are no moral victories, but we had lots of reasons to put our heads down and we kept fighting."
The final stats showed that apart from Rainey, who totaled 108 yards rushing and 104 yards receiving, the Gators were held to 135 total yards and three touchdowns.
Given that the Vols scored three touchdowns themselves, the difference was mostly in field position, which they surrendered through most of the first half because of their inability to run the football.
Yet there is one area everyone in orange agreed must improve if the Vols are to avoid this result in future SEC games.
"We've been giving up quick scores early two games in a row," said Johnson, referring to the 7-0 deficit against Cincinnati and the 16-0 hole against Florida. "We've got to come out with a little more intensity, a little more focus, and make sure we get a stop on the first drive."
Said Dooley: "We hit a buzz saw and made a ton of mistakes early that put us in a hole."
But at least some of those mistakes were caused by the blinding speed of Rainey, and that's one problem Johnson doesn't expect the Vols to face many more times this season.
"He's just so fast," Johnson said. "Extremely fast. You just don't see many like him."
At least the Vols defense hopes it doesn't.