After a two week absence, Tennessee's youth showed itself again tonight. Tyler Bray was same old same old in the first half, completing 12 of his first 14 passes. This finished a stretch where Bray, after a pick six on his first pass in Columbia, went 58 of his next 95 (61.1%) for 981 yards, 12 TDs and 0 INTs. Not bad, eh?
But every true freshman QB has a game where they play like a true freshman QB; Casey Clausen had the Cotton Bowl, Erik Ainge had Auburn. So here's hoping that Bray condensed his "freshman game" to the second half tonight - following the 12 of 14 start, Bray went just 4 of 13 and threw two interceptions. The Vols - the least penalized team in the SEC - got a little chippy and a little stupid, with 9 penalties for 75 yards, including a late hit that wiped out a pick six.
But if your youth is going to show itself, you want the opponent to be Vanderbilt. Because while the Vol freshmen were doing what freshmen sometimes do, Vanderbilt did what it always does. The Dores crossed the Vol 45 eight times, and scored 10 points. On their non-scoring trips to the red zone, they doinked a field goal off the upright - a classic Vanderbilt move - and threw the ball to Janzen Jackson.
The end result is a win that was harder than it should've been, but was never really in doubt because, well, it's Vanderbilt. Tauren Poole turned a 4th and 2 into the clincher on the final drive, and the Vols leave Nashville with a 24-10 win. It's UT's third in a row, gets the Vols to 5-6, and keeps Derek Dooley safe from the worst season in program history, as the Vols remain the only school in the FBS to have never suffered an eight loss season.
But this game was always really about the next one, and maybe that's why our players didn't maintain focus as well tonight. Vanderbilt we assumed because they're Vanderbilt. Kentucky we assume because we've done it 25 years in a row...but within that assumption is the recognition that the team we'll face next week is a lot better than the team we saw tonight. And while the Vol defense has a nice run going in these last three games (and holding Ole Miss to 14 certainly looks better after what they did to Chief today), Randall Cobb and Kentucky average 441 yards of offense per game. I doubt 24 points gets the W next week.
And next week is the season, the latest edition of the most important game of Dooley's career. Losing to Kentucky will train wreck the momentum we've built. Beating Kentucky means Year One was a success. No big deal.
The Vols have picked themselves up and dusted off their britches in admirable fashion, so much so that we can complain about only beating Vanderbilt by 14 points. Now it's time to see what this team can do in its final test. Perhaps tonight's game humbled the Vols, and perhaps that's what we needed. But it's quickly on to the last test, to earn the right to face another test in December, to gain those precious extra practices, and to keep this process moving forward.
Three down. One to go.