In the last non-conference game before the heart of the conference schedule, the Tennessee Volunteers won in a tougher-than-expected matchup against the Ohio Bobcats. The good news is that the Volunteers won. The bad news is the injury list.
The opening quarter started out briskly for the Vols, with a solid opening drive capped by an eleven-yard touchdown run by Montario Hardesty to create a 7-0 lead. But then, things went haywire fast for the home team. The following kickoff was returned by Ohio's specialist Chris Garrett for a touchdown to tie the game at 7-7. The next drive ended abruptly with an all-too-familiar tone for Vols fans: an early interception thrown by Jonathan Crompton. With the short field, the Bobcats took a quick 14-7 lead, closing with a 2-yard pass from Theo Scott to LaVon Brazill. The Volunteers tied things up at the end of the first quarter with a touchdown pass to Brandon Warren.
And then the grudge match was on.
Ohio, led by coach Frank Solich, gameplanned very well for Tennessee. The Bobcat defense sold out against the run, daring Crompton to throw all day long. To his credit (and every Vol fans' fear), Lane Kiffin obliged by turning Crompton loose for a 34-attempt night, even after the early interception. Likewise, Monte Kiffin sold out his defense against the run, determined to halt the spread elements of the pistol formation, to which the Bobcats turned their quarterback loose for a 52-pass night. The result was that the second quarter ground down to a near-halt with field possession ruling the night.
Playing field position worked for the Vols. Pinning Ohio back deep in their own end, the ferocious pressure from the Ed Orgeron-trained line caused Ohio quarterback Theo Scott to throw straight into the arms of defensive end Chris Walker, who sauntered into the end zone for his first career pick-six and a 21-14 Tennessee lead. After trading field goals (and a very near miss from a 46-yard attempt by Daniel Lincoln), the half ended 24-17.
In the third quarter, the grinding game continued, with an early field goal for Ohio and a late touchdown by Tennessee on a 26-yard Jonathan Crompton to Bryce Brown pass that extended the Volunteer lead to 31-20 heading into the fourth quarter. Likewise in the fourth, a pair of traded field goals left the final score 34-23 - much closer than the Volunteer faithful were hoping for, but a win nonetheless.
Areas of Concern
Special Teams: The kickoff touchdown run has to worry the Vols. Between that and other returns, it appears the coverage unit needs some more work in anticipation of other good return games down the horizon. On the plus side, Lincoln is having a much, much better year kicking field goals than he did last year, with only missing the one 46-yarder on the year and setting a new career high with the late 49-yard field goal to ice the game. Improvement has definitely been made in special teams, but Eddie Gran's job is not done.
Wide Receivers: Either to the credit of the Ohio secondary, the detriment of the Tennessee receiving corps, or both, the Volunteer receivers were not able to consistently establish separation in their routes, giving Crompton precious few targets and forcing many throwaways. While the interceptions were down for Crompton (just one on a deflected ball) as well as for the Ohio secondary (who had 5 on the year already), the lack of opportunities were more of a problem in this game than in previous outings for Tennessee.
Injuries: At one point, five defensive starters were out of the game for injuries, including a potentially nasty leg injury to home crowd favorite linebacker Nick Reveiz. The injuries are coming at the worst possible time - the very beginning of the main SEC conference slate, which starts next Saturday against the Auburn Tigers. As this is a team that is very clearly led by the defense and very thin on depth, getting as many healthy bodies back into the lineup as possible is a high priority.
Tennessee touchdowns were scored by Montario Hardesty, Bryce Brown, Chris Walker, and Brandon Warren. Daniel Lincoln missed his first field goal of the year (a 46-yarder) but made a personal record 49-yarder and a 38-yarder, dispelling many of the fears of a return of last year's shaky performance. Aaron Douglas made his first career start at right tackle, adding valuable experience for the future of the Vols offensive line. Eric Berry had another quiet night, as Ohio clearly played to keep the ball as far away from him as possible. Janzen Jackson is obviously relishing the opportunity to lay hard hits, inflicting several on Bobcats players. The Tennessee defense held the Ohio offense to 21 yards on the ground on 17 carries, but gave up 319 passing yards on 52 attempts for a 6.1-yard average.