Traditionally an opponent like this one meant an easy Saturday for the Vols to feel good about themselves. But one of the many ways UT's fall from grace over the last several years could be measured was in the Vols' inability to make an easy Saturday easy. A pair of near misses against UAB in 2005 and 2010. Air Force coming within a two point conversion in 2006. Wyoming getting it done in 2008. And MAC foes Northern Illinois (13-9 in '08) and Ohio (34-23 in '09) giving the Vols more than they wanted.
But today Tennessee followed up a strong performance over a Big East team with a dominant performance over a MAC team, exactly the way a good Tennessee team is supposed to. The game was never in doubt, and the Vols leave with not just a 41-10 win over Buffalo, but a good feeling in every phase of the game. After the loss of Justin Hunter, a backwards running game, and a long off week, today was exactly what Tennessee needed.
It continues to start with Tyler Bray: 21 of 30 for 342 yards, along with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. And as has been the case every week, he would've had even more if not for a few drops. We're getting ready to never have to use this qualifier again, but his season numbers have to be put in the context of who he's faced. But it's not just his 332 yards per game average, or his 14-2 TD-INT ratio. It's the fact that I can count on one hand, and probably minus a few fingers, the number of bad decisions he's made this season. Even today, throwing into perhaps his tightest space yet, Bray and Da'Rick Rogers connected for a touchdown. Throws that would be risky for other quarterbacks are normal for him, and when he does take chances he almost always makes the play. The biggest and most important part of his young legacy is getting ready to be written. But how can you not love everything you've seen from him so far?
You also have to love Da'Rick Rogers, who stared down a ton of man-to-man coverage and came up with 7 catches for 180 yards and a pair of touchdowns. With all kinds of questions about who would replace Hunter, Rogers played well enough on his own to be the answer. Bray still spread the ball around to eight different targets, with Zach Rogers (2 for 24) and DeAnthony Arnett (3 for 27, 2 TD) clearly separating themselves from the rest of the wide receivers by simply the amount of time they see the field, joining Mychal Rivera (3 for 38) as reliable targets. Tennessee's offense was also sparked by the presence of Rajion Neal, who caught a 14 yard pass and added 20 more on an end around for the Vols' first score.
It was to the outside where the UT run game found most of its yardage as well. Tauren Poole picked up 101 yards on 17 carries to lead the way, right at half of UT's 199 rushing yards (aided by 30 from Matt Darr on a botched punt). It was certainly a positive showing from the Vol rushing attack, which shouldered the majority of the load (44 rushes, 31 passes) as you would expect in a game like this. We weren't going to get a definitive answer about the run game against Buffalo, but we did find hope going forward.
Defensively, it was the same, mostly-good story: one big play because the Vols were in the wrong spot, and then a refusal to break. Chazz Anderson got 68 of the Bulls' 264 yards on one run. 43 more came against the second team in the fourth quarter. Between those two drives, the Vol defense got great pressure on the quarterback and got off the field. Buffalo was 3 for 13 on third down and 0 for 3 on fourth down. Tennessee was 12 for 16 on third down, and is now 36 for 58 on the year, an incredible 62.1%, which will almost certainly leave the Vols in the Top 5 nationally in that category after this week.
Special teams was a mixed bag, but a mixed bag is better than what we're used to. Michael Palardy made both of his field goals, and UT's kick coverage continues to be excellent. Matt Darr had a punt blocked, but then ran it 30 yards for a first down. And Devrin Young showed he is equal parts exciting and freshman with a pair of long returns and a fumble. The Vols also failed to fall on the ball on a Buffalo squib kick to allow another turnover.
Still, against Buffalo those things don't hurt you if the Vols do what they're supposed to do, and today they absolutely did.
What else can Tennessee do? The answers are coming.