Here's how considerate the Vols are: knowing you wanted to watch LSU and Alabama, Tennessee had all their fun between 7:00-8:00 PM Eastern, then did absolutely nothing of note once the Tide and Tigers kicked off.
That's really not far from the truth at all. After punting on their first drive, Tennessee immediately got the ball back with Austin Johnson's second interception in three games, setting up a Tauren Poole touchdown - UT's first since the second quarter of the LSU game and second since October 1 vs Buffalo.
Then it was the Justin Worley show: four straight completions on the next drive, ending with a 47 yard touchdown to Da'Rick Rogers to make it 14-0. Then to open the second quarter, the Vols unleashed a 15 play, 86 yard drive capped by another Poole touchdown to make it 21-0 just as LSU and Alabama kicked off midway through the second quarter in Knoxville.
And then, everything pretty much stopped. The Vols got three before halftime thanks to third-string kicker Derrick Brodus from Alcoa High School knocking home a 21 yarder. In the second half the Vols drove inside the MTSU 40 three times but came away with no points, getting stopped thrice on fourth down. But the defense kept everything in check, holding MTSU to 230 yards (they averaged 462 coming in) and forcing three turnovers. A late fumble kept the shutout intact; MTSU was averaging 30 points per game.
So if you didn't see any of it, the score looks worse than it actually was for the Vols. Tennessee outgained the Blue Raiders 411-230 and Justin Worley was sharp: 23 of 32 for 291 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. Like Bray, he loves Da'Rick Rogers (9 catches, 137 yards). His greatest flaw was his own arm strength, as he overthrew everyone a number of times, several of which would've been touchdowns against MTSU's secondary. But Worley gave you plenty of reasons to believe in this passing game until Tyler Bray returns.
What's not a story: "Tennessee sucks in the second half again!" There's a huge difference between folding in the face of adversity and what we saw tonight, where the Vols and their third-string kicker simply failed to finish drives. What is a story: Tennessee ran 45 times for 120 yards, just 2.7 yards per carry, against a defense that came in 113th nationally against the run (giving up 218 yards per game on the ground).
This is November 5, and we've seen enough to say with certainty: with Tyler Bray or Justin Worley in the game, we can't run the football. We may not need to the rest of the way home, but it was still jarring to see against tonight's opponent. Tauren Poole had 11 carries for 13 yards. The bulk of the work went to Alcoa High School's Jaron Toney, a walk-on who had 19 carries for 52 yards. Marlin Lane, who had been banged up, got some work in a wildcat package late. If it's Toney going forward, it's worth noting that he set the TSSAA record with 50 touchdowns as a senior in high school; he may be a walk-on, but he's familiar with success.
Arkansas awaits, with another top ten ranking (if their lead on South Carolina at the time of this post holds) but a much more questionable defense than anything the Vols saw in their first five SEC games. If Bray's thumb hasn't miraculously healed, we saw enough from Worley tonight to believe he can move the football next Saturday. And he'll have to, because the Vols simply can't run the football. But quietly, Tennessee's defense continues to impress; they'll face an attack they haven't seen this year in Fayetteville, but if they continue to overachieve against the Razorbacks, Tennessee can carry the fight to Arkansas.
Most importantly, Tennessee won, and the game was never in question thanks to Worley and the defense. He'll step back into the fire next Saturday in Tennessee's last chance to earn Derek Dooley's first big win in the regular season.