In case you decided not to spend money on ESPN Gameplan, have cable that doesn't offer CSS or just decided the snuff-film quality and constant buffering of ESPN3 wasn't your way of spending a Saturday night, let me just inform you:
This was much more ulcer-inducing than the final box score looks.
The Tennessee Volunteers survived an early stunner, four squandered orange zone attempts, a lackluster defensive effort and not exactly the sharpest of performances by quarterback Tyler Bray to beat Akron, 47-26. Terry Bowden's boys may be coming off a 1-11 season, but the Zips were not a bit intimidated in Neyland Stadium. The Vols gave them every reason to believe they could hang around all night, and UT couldn't rest easily until a two-play swing in the fourth quarter.
At that point, Tennessee clung -- in every sense of the word -- to a tenuous 33-26 lead over Akron, but the Zips had the football after yet another blown touchdown chance for the Vols. But Akron quarterback Dalton Williams overshot his receiver, and UT cornerback Eric Gordon gathered in a diving interception -- Williams' third of the night.
On the first play following the pick, Bray found Justin Hunter for a 19-yard touchdown to put the Vols up comfortably 40-26. Following a three-and-out series, the Vols scored quickly on a five-play drive that was capped by Bray's 26-yard completion to a wide-open Jacob "Snake" Carter to make the final score a little easier to stomach.
Still, this had Sandwich Game Sleeper written all over it from the start. After losing a deflating 37-20 game against Florida last week and with a trip to top-five division foe Georgia looming next week, it seemed Tennessee's Air Show was extremely late to the party.
On UT's first series, Bray was intercepted by Florida State transfer Avis Commack, who returned it 44 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 early lead. The Vols and Zips traded punches for the better part of the next three quarters as UT could never get an arm's length between itself and the perennial MAC bottom-dwellers.
Following the Vols' failure to convert a fourth-and-1 on an A.J. Johnson Wildcat play near the end of the first half, Akron running back Quentin Hines stunned Neyland's crowd with a 70-yard touchdown run to gash UT's defense and put the Zips ahead 23-20 before the half. Though the Vols tied the game before the break, they couldn't put it away until the last half of the last quarter.
Now, the Vols gear up to face a Georgia team that absolutely ripped Vanderbilt to shreds on Saturday and will probably welcome back suspended stars Baccari Rambo and Alec Ogletree just in time to face Tennessee. There will be thousands of things the Vols need to fix before that game. Let's run down some of the high -- and low -- lights from Saturday.
First the good:
- Junior running back Rajion Neal led what was easily Tennessee's best rushing performance in two years with a career-high 151 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown. There were numerous times he got to the second level, made a move and nearly broke it. He also stuck his nose in the middle and got some tough yards as well. It was an all-around quality performance from a player who looked like a solid back against an overmatched opponent. The Vols racked up 232 rushing yards, and they had several key contributors along the way.
- Former walk-on kicker Derrick Brodus of Alcoa gave the Vols what they've been looking for all season. He tied the school record for most points in a game by a kicker, really saving the Vols' orange-zone failures with four short field goals. He also made seven extra points. Brodus made field goals of 37, 23, 22 and 28 yards. But that's better than Michael Palardy ever did. For the first time all season, we didn't miss an extra point.
- Most Tennessee fans will be disgruntled by the offense, which is funny considering UT finished with 633 total yards. The obvious frustrations will be discussed below. But the good thing is Bray was far from sharp and still wound up 27-of-43 for 401 yards and four touchdowns. He completed passes to 11 different receivers.
- Justin Hunter rebounded from a tough performance against Florida to finish with eight catches for 115 yards and a touchdown. He was the Vols' chief weapon in the passing game.
- Defensively, Byron Moore was without his backfield teammate Brian Randolph, but he played a fantastic game, picking off two passes and just missing another one late in the game. One of Moore's picks was especially huge because it came at the goal line with the Zips going in to score. Eric Gordon made a monstrous interception late in the game as well.
Now the bad
- This game really shouldn't have been close ever. The Vols were the superior team but really struggled to put up touchdowns once they got down in scoring range. It seemed the Zips played quality defense with their backs against the wall, but the bottom line is UT's superior athletes just got out-worked, and Bray's inconsistency really showed in short range.
- Speaking of Bray, he was way off for the second week in a row with his accuracy. There were two plays he just totally missed that should have been touchdowns. It didn't help matters that he also could have [should have] had even better stats but Zach Rogers missed two sure catches -- one that would have gone for a deep touchdown. It seems nit-picky to gripe about Bray in a 400-yard performance, and I'm trying not to do that, but any fan who watched that game will tell you he wasn't at his best. It was nice to see Alton "Pig" Howard [two catches, 18 yards] and Brendan Downs [one catch, 6 yard touchdown] get involved, but Bray totally missed the read on a wide-open Howard that would have gone for a touchdown.
- Despite Tennessee's running success, the Vols still sputtered in crucial short-yardage situations. Same song, different verse. They failed to get the first down with Johnson's Wildcat sneak at the end of the first half, and trying to salt away the game late, UT also was stuffed in the backfield on third-and-1. Those things get you beat in the SEC.
- UT had two costly turnovers that resulted in 10 Akron points, or this game is never moderately close. The thing about it is, the defense had nothing to do with any of those points. Bray's interception was returned for a touchdown, and on Neal's fumble, Akron got no yardage and nailed a field goal.
- Still, the defense wasn't without fault. The Vols couldn't stop Akron in the first half, and though they made adjustments after the break, allowing just three points, they cannot have that many mental lapses on that side of the ball in the SEC. Most alarming for the Vols, they had absolutely zero pass rush.