He. Wasn't. Even. Touched.
Forget all Florida's talent and the fact that Chris Rainey rained all over the Tennessee Volunteers' perhaps-premature hopes in Saturday's 33-23 Gators win; this football game was lost on a play where nobody was tackled.
And I don't mean to imply Tennessee would have won had superstar receiver Justin Hunter not left the game for good 5 minutes in after injuring his knee. I'm saying the Vols couldn't overcome the immediate fallout. I truly believe that even this young rendition of UT's football team is built to sustain a jarring shot to the mouth. But no team can endure the knockout punch Fate delivered UT just 5 minutes into Saturday's slap at the Swamp.
Florida took the opening drive down the field and scored a touchdown, marching chunk-by-massive-chunk and finishing with six points and style points to put the Vols in an early hole. That was a bad enough start.
But Everything Changed when UT faced third-and-10 following the kick. Tyler Bray dropped back and found Hunter for 11 yards and a first down. As Hunter came down, however, the world-class athlete landed awkwardly and crumpled to the ground. He wasn't even hit. Just the angle of one of Hunter's multi-million dollar legs was ever-so-slightly askew one second, and the next, he sprawled there on the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium turf, writhing in pain.
Hunter wouldn't return in the game and likely won't for the rest of the year. All of a sudden, the Vols faced athletic and fearsome Florida without its best player, the receiver for which much of a dynamic offense is designed. All of a sudden, a team that cannot run was made Da'Rick-dimensional. All of a sudden, the Gators smelled blood in the water.
We all know what happened next. And after that. And after that. Though UT kept marching downfield after Hunter's injury, Michael Palardy missed a field goal. Then Rainey blocked a punt. Then Rainey went crazy in the running game and the passing game. The crowd got loud. The swamp became The Swamp again. The Vols trailed 30-7. The game was over.
Is the season?
Before you think I'm being too dramatic here, I'm not suggesting it is. But after UT coach Derek Dooley said following the game that there is no indication that Hunter is OK, we're facing the rest of the season an irreplaceable weapon short. The whole season is in front of us, but already, there is a sense of sadness, like something that might have been was cruelly swept away before it really got off the ground. Basically, we fear a season is blown along with a knee.
But that's not necessarily the case.
There were numerous reasons the Vols lost Saturday. But all of it can be traced back to the Hunter injury. When he went down, a raincloud set in over Tennessee's sideline. Our players looked lost. Our coaches were scrambling. Our entire team curled up in a fetal position and looked for a teddy bear.
Then you look up, and you're getting blown out of the water.
Here's the silver lining, though: The blowout never materialized. Sure, Florida's secondary kept the Vols in the game with seven pass interference penalties and a couple of dropped picks, but UT found some things out in Hunter's absence. The Vols realized they don't have to have him to be offensively-successful, just to be offensively-dominant. Little-used freshman DeAnthony Arnett led UT with eight catches. Mychal Rivera again did some good things in the passing game. Matt Milton even ran a good route and caught a pass. Though Rogers wasn't great, dropping two passes, he was still a threat. Marlin Lane made some plays.
You never really felt like UT was going to win, but the game at least wasn't completely in-hand for the Gators until very late. The final tally was 33-23, but Bray threw his second interception in a pressure-packed situation when the Vols were just trying to find something downfield, ending any chance at a crazy comeback.
My point is this: Everybody needs to take a deep breath -- fans, players, coaches. UT found out some things about itself in the frantic, frenzied, Oh-Lord-What-Do-We-Do aftermath of a cataclysmic injury. The problem is the Vols didn't find them quickly enough to beat Florida, but at least they found them.
Thinking back on the few backbreaking plays that helped beat us Saturday doesn't make me think this team is hopeless. Bray's interception to start the second half was massive, but it looked like he was throwing across his body, trying to throw it away and out-of-bounds and just didn't get it there. If Palardy makes that early kick, things are not so desperate offensively trying to catch up points. Dooley out-thought himself and made a bad decision on the two-point conversion. Multiple times, defenders -- most notably Curt Maggitt -- were in position to make plays on Rainey and others and simply failed to wrap up.
These are massive mistakes, but they are fixable.
Once things calmed down and everybody got over the "OMG, our best player is gone" factor, UT didn't play poorly. As a matter of fact, it battled much better than it ever did last year.
Now, we enter a bye week that will be grueling for the fans. But the fact of the matter is it couldn't come at a better time for these players and coaching staff. It's back to Square One offensively. But it's not like there aren't any blocks with which to build. We've still got Bray and Rogers, and that's still one of the best combos in the conference. If the news we're all expecting is announced tomorrow and Hunter has a season-ending knee injury, we must work frantically at developing Arnett, Milton, Vincent Dallas. We have to find out what we do well and add some wrinkles in the playbook in the process of revamping it altogether. We've absolutely got to find something -- ANYTHING -- in the run game that works. And we move on. We have to. There's no other choice.
I could stand losing this game. Record-wise, we're no worse than many of us thought we'd be entering the season. It just feels like five losses because of the Hunter news to us. If that's the case from a fan's perspective, imagine how it hit those coaches and players. ... These kids go down there green and grinning, feeling on top of the world and that nobody can knock them off. Then, here comes the Great Hand of Fate, and with one thump, it not only hurls the Vols into the loss column but hurts our superstar in the process.
Then, there's Rainey playing the game of his life against a defense that can't match his speed. There's a defensive front seven full of five-star talents pinning their ears back and coming after Bray with the knowledge that UT can't run the ball. Then, there's a couple of mental mistakes. All of a sudden, boom, it's over.
But it's only one game. It's not the season.
Tennessee still has plenty of that to play and plenty left to play for. Let's all spend our nights saying a prayer that Hunter's MRI shows something nobody believes it will. But if the expected happens, let's hope that UT realizes there are 84 other players out there, and the cupboard isn't bare. Let's hope that just because Jim Chaney's offense is a diamond short, it doesn't turn into a bag of coal. Let's hope this team uses Hunter's injury as a call-to-arms and not a coffin.
Tennessee didn't sustain that post-Hunter blow very well. But there are plenty of fights left and plenty of players to prove this wasn't a one-man show.