Wiedmer: Bray, Vols not quite there yet

Wiedmer: Bray, Vols not quite there yet

September 18th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Hey, Tyler Bray. You're not in Tennessee anymore.

One of the more interesting notes hovering around Saturday's Tennessee-Florida game was the not-so-little fact that Bray, UT's sophomore quarterback, was about to make his first college start outside the Volunteer State.

Yes, he'd looked brilliant at Memphis last season, but your 3-year-old could carve up the Tigers secondary with a Nerf football. Bray also had won at Vanderbilt, but, hey, those were the old Commodores, before James Franklin arrived last winter to put the "D" back in 'Dores.

(For proof, just ask Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt this morning after that doctorate on defense the Commodores threw all over the Rebels.)

But back to Bray, who also had played his freshman bowl game in the Music City, having a roller-coaster night against North Carolina in the last postseason the Tar Heels may see for a very long time after the NCAA Committee on Infractions gets through with them.

So here came Florida -- or, more specifically, here came Bray to the Swamp, the place that twice swallowed Peyton Manning whole, the place that hadn't let any Volunteers quarterback exit a winner since Casey Clausen in 2003.

And this year would be no different as Bray threw three touchdown passes and two interceptions and was sacked three times in a 33-23 loss.

"I was definitely frustrated," Bray said. "You're going to get frustrated if things don't go your way."

It quit going UT's way on the opening kickoff, which went to Florida, which promptly drove it down the Vols' throats for a 7-0 lead.

But it really quit going Bray's way on Tennessee's first offensive possession, when favorite target Justin Hunter injured his left knee on a 12-yard grab that gave UT a first down on its own 42.

In perhaps the single best quote of the evening, Vols coach Derek Dooley said of Hunter's loss, "We had to play left-handed the rest of the game."

Whether they have to play left-handed the rest of the season -- Bray down to a single favorite target in Da'Rick Rogers -- remains to be seen. Hunter was to have an MRI upon his return to Knoxville, but Dooley didn't sound hopeful that he would return any time soon.

"There's no indication it's OK," he said.

But there may be some indication that UT and Bray are OK, even if the quarterback did appeared rattled more than once when flushed from the pocket and forced to throw on the run.

Asked if Hunter's loss cost them the game, Bray replied, "There are always what-ifs. What if I don't throw two picks. What if I throw five touchdowns? We still had three quarters to come back and make plays, which we failed to do."

Actually, the Vols failed to make enough plays both early and late, when the deficit could still be overcome -- when Florida was still playing straight up rather than targeting Bray's air show only.

Another telling quote from Dooley: "Every time we felt like we were inching back, we wouldn't play well."

And they didn't. At least not enough. Even early in the fourth quarter, having pulled within 30-16, the Vols were called for a costly facemask penalty that kept a Gators drive alive.

"We just needed to get the ball back," Dooley said, "but we couldn't stop them."

Not early. Not late. And because they could never move the ball on the ground, finishing 9 yards in the red on 21 total carries, Bray had a Gator's facemask in his face more times than not.

"It gets frustrating," Dooley said on behalf of Bray. "But I give him a lot of credit because he kept playing."

On their first trip outside the Volunteer State since a Halloween weekend loss at Southn Carolina, they all kept playing, though inarguably not as well as Dooley, the players or the Big Orange Nation had hoped in falling to 2-1 for the season.

"We're just not there yet," Dooley said.

Now the question becomes if they can ever get there if Hunter's done for the season. Either way, at least the Vanderbilt game is in Knoxville this year.