Well, then. A half a hundred on one end of the scale and a big, fat goose egg on the other? Yeah, it was a middling FCS school, but then again most considered Tennessee not much more than a middler itself. Instead of putting up a merely respectable 30 points or so and holding its opponent to a score or two -- as many, if not most, expected -- the Tennessee Volunteers piled on the points and pitched its first shutout in seven years.
The Running Game. Out there somewhere somebody is writing the headline "Poole Party" because that's a large part of what it was. Tauren Poole hit 110 yards on 17 carries for 2 TDs and averaged 6.5 yards per carry. But if it was a Poole Party, David Oku crashed it, averaging a whopping 12.8 yards (six carries for 77 yards) and adding a TD. Even third-stringer Raijon Neal looked great in garbage time, carrying the ball nine times for 79 yards, an average of nearly nine yards. Oh, and Denarius Moore took a jet sweep 58 yards for a touchdown. Yes, he averaged 58 yards per carry. In all, the team rushed for 332 yards and averaged 7.7 yards per rush. Not bad, even considering the opponent.
Of course, none of that happens without solid line play, and wonder of wonders, that' exactly what the Vols got. The line started strong, hit a bit of a tricky spot during which things went stagnant and players earned false starts, but they found their sea legs quickly enough. I want to say that the right side of the line appeared stronger, but I think I'm basing that on only one play where both linemen on the left side missed their blocks.
The bad news: Jarrod Shaw, the only guy on the offensive line with starting experience before tonight, went out somewhere around the beginning of the fourth quarter with an ankle injury. No word yet on how long they expect him to be out.
The Passing Game. Boy, Matt Simms looked really good. Apart from a few passes, he was on target and in control. He seemed to take both setbacks and success in stride, and from all appearances he has good chemistry with his entire team. Simms did so well that he got to sit out at least a quarter with the team comfortably ahead. He finished 14-24 for 181 yards, one TD, and no interceptions.
You can see why Simms got the nod over Tyler Bray, who forgot to put in his mouthpiece on his first snap and finished his first drive with the team's only interception. He did appear to get some good out of his time, as he eventually settled down and at the very least got some experience. Plus, the guy can fall forward and gain three yards, which can really come in handy.
For the most part, the receivers looked great. The bulk of the work went to Gerald Jones, who gained 86 yards on 6 receptions, and Denarius Moore, who got 66 yards on 4 receptions. Luke Stocker had a bit of a disappointing start, letting three passes hit him in the fingers and sail through or bounce off. To be fair, the passes were a bit high and hot, but he's the only guy on the team who could be playing in the NFL right now, so fans expect a lot of him.
The bad news from the receiving standpoint is that Gerald Jones went out with a wrist injury in the second half and did not return. He was seen on the sideline with a wrist brace on in the fourth quarter. There are no updates on his availability for next week yet. [Note by Joel, 09/04/10 10:44 PM EDT ] Per Hooper, post-game quote from Dooley suggests that "there's a good chance" it's a broken wrist, which is a horrible rotten Bad Thing.
Even though Jones and Moore got most of the receptions, several other receivers also got into the action, including Stocker, Kevin Cooper, Da'Rick Rogers, Zach Rogers, and Mychal Rivers, who all caught passes and contributed to the team's 205 passing yards. Combined, the offense put up 537 yards to UTM's 142 and had 23 first downs to UTM's 3.
The Defensive Line. Big surprise here. The d-line didn't have a ton of tackles or anything (Montori Hughes and Jacques Smith each had four tackles), but they did clog up the middle and make way for LBs and DBs to make plays behind the line of scrimmage.
The linebackers. Austin Johnson got one safety and got jobbed out of another by the refs. [Note by Joel, 09/04/10 10:43 PM EDT ] And yes, he had that fantastic interception as well. LaMarcus Thompson had five tackles, including one that sent a receiver coming at him across the field at full speed back in the opposite direction several yards. Nick Reveiz was curiously absent with only one tackle.
The secondary. Prentiss Waggner not only had six tackles, he had a 54-yard pick six. Eric Gordon looked solid in coverage, as did Marsalis Teague. Janzen Jackson was sort of quiet in the same way Eric Berry was sort of quiet much of the time last year, which is a very good thing.
Daniel Lincoln was 2 of 2 on field goals and, unless I'm forgetting something, made all of his PATs. Punting and punt coverage was fine. A bit perplexing, though, were the kickoffs. All spring and summer, we've been told that incoming kicker Michael Palardy can consistently put the ball in the end zone, and Chad Cunningham tonight consistently put the ball on the five-to-ten yard line instead, sometimes worse. Maybe that was part of the plan (?) or, at the least, the coverage was usually decent, often keeping the returner behind the 20 for starting field position. Some of the field position, though, was aided by missing catches, so I'm not sure yet what to think about the kickoffs.
Our punt returning was nothing special, either. Gerald Jones muffed the first, giving the ball right back to UTM, and he fair caught practically every one (every one?) after that.
Yes, it was UTM. But did you see Florida having trouble executing the shotgun snap? Did you see Ole Miss lose to Jacksonville State? Tennessee did a lot of good things. Justin Wilcox mixed up the defensive coverages, fronts, and blitzes keeping everything off balance for the offense, and his guys tackled almost flawlessly. Fundamentals were sound.
It was not perfect (see the muffed punt return, the false starts, and delay of game, etc.), but it was solid, both offensively and defensively. Fans' biggest concerns were the offensive line's ability to run block for the backs and pass block for the QBs and the defensive line's ability to shore up the middle and get pressure in the backfield. Had those two units shown any vulnerability even against UTM, we would have just nodded our heads, half-expecting it. That we didn't see any of that against UTM doesn't mean we won't see it against Oregon, Florida, or any of our other 2010 opponents. But as a fan, you've got to feel at least a little better about the possibilities.