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Finding Hope: Cincinnati

During our darkest hours last season with Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray on the sideline, the half-serious rallying cry among the most optimistic of us was, "Remember what we did to Cincinnati?" Seven months later, it's still the best case for hope for Derek Dooley and the Tennessee program right now. But how well does it really stand up?

Going into the game, we didn't really know what to expect. Tennessee had beaten Montana with ease but struggled in the run game, while Cincinnati had beaten Austin Peay 72-10 in their opener. One question at the time - "how good is Cincinnati, really?" - got better as the year went along: after the loss to the Vols, Cincy ripped off six wins in a row before coming up just short against West Virginia 24-21, when QB Zach Collaros went down in the second quarter. That led to another loss at Rutgers the following week, but Cincy rebounded to finish 9-3 in the regular season, then beat Vanderbilt in the Liberty Bowl 31-24. Their national numbers on the year: 26th in scoring offense, 36th in rushing offense, 78th in passing offense, 61st in total offense. On defense: 20th in points allowed, 6th best against the run, 99th against the pass, 42nd in total yards allowed.

So our thoughts from last year really turned out to be right: this wasn't a great team, but a good one. And the beauty of Tennessee's performance is that it came without forcing an interception or recovering a fumble; Tennessee didn't blow Cincy out because they were lucky, we did so because we were good, and on this day at full strength, at our best.

What does Tennessee's best look like seven months later? Here's some thoughts on a complete rewatch of the Cincinnati game...

First Quarter

Mike Patrick! Craig James!

The last few years, the best crowd of the year has always been the non-conference home opener (UCLA, Oregon, Cincinnati). It's when we're still hopeful, and it showed on this day.

Tennessee wins the toss and defers - with our offense at full strength, it'll be interesting to see if this trend continues in 2012. Ralph David Abernathy IV doesn't get a chance to return the kick because it bounces through the end zone - again, we'll see how often that happens in 2012. Daryl Vereen makes a nice tackle to force 3rd and 1, but a substitution violation from UT gives them the first down. And then Isaiah Pead dusts Vereen and rips off a 65 yard touchdown run. Pead really impressed me on this day and throughout the year: 1,259 yards and 12 touchdowns on the season, 27th nationally in yards per game. 7-0 Cincinnati.

But on this day Tennessee handled adversity beautifully. Rocky Top Talk's favorite debate - should Tennessee just throw the ball 50+ times per game, or do we need to run the football - found a huge argument for the former on this day. Tennessee's first drive:

  • Tyler Bray pass complete to Justin Hunter for 15 yards
  • Tyler Bray pass complete to Mychal Rivera for 9 yards
  • Tyler Bray pass complete to Justin Hunter for 18 yards
  • Tauren Poole run 2 yards
  • Tauren Poole run -1 yards
  • Tyler Bray pass complete to Da'Rick Rogers for 13 yards
  • Defensive pass interference
  • Marlin Lane 2 yard TD run

And then, Derek Dooley reached in his bag of tricks and dialed up an onside kick from Michael Palardy, which the Vols executed perfectly and the kicker recovered. After two runs and a first down from Tauren Poole, the Vols faced 3rd and 3. Cincinnati's defense learned you don't play bump and run on Justin Hunter: Bray hit hunter on the go route for a 14-7 lead. Tyler Bray: 6 for 6, 96 yards.

Pead went back to work on the ensuing drive; his first three carries on the day went for 99 yards. Tennessee's defense then goes pass interference, offsides, then allowed a touchdown on a superb catch by the tight end. 14-14 in just 8:32 of action; at this point neither quarterback has thrown an incompletion.

Bray hits Da'Rick and Hunter to go to 8 for 8 for 130 yards, then misfired on a ball to freshman Vincent Dallas. We saw some welcome fire from Bray here on what appeared to be miscommunication. Bray went back to Poole for his ninth completion, but a Marlin Lane fumble on the next play killed the drive. The Vols force a punt and come off the 20 to end the first quarter. Tyler Bray after one: 11 for 12, 166 yards, one touchdown. Is this the greatest one quarter performance by any UT quarterback? Young kids may not remember Andy Kelly's fourth quarter in the Sugar Bowl against Virginia, which I'd put at the top of that list, but Bray's start here is certainly on it.

Second Quarter

Mychal Rivera catches a first down pass. Craig James says he watches Glee but doesn't sing along. After a nice run by Poole and a subsequent horse collar, Bray hits a wide open Da'Rick Rogers to make it 21-14. Bray breaks a Peyton Manning record with eight straight games with 2+ touchdown passes, a record he would run to ten straight in the next two weeks. He's also now 13 for 15 for 190 yards.

And then we get to see the first glimpse of my favorite Dooley visual: charging onto the field with fist pumps aplenty as the Vol defense stops Cincinnati on 4th and 1 at midfield. Bray goes to Brendan Downs, his seventh different target, and grins like a small child as he gets to 14 for 16 for 211 yards. Then after - gasp! - two straight incompletions, Bray dumps it down to Da'Rick short of a first down, and Palardy misses from 43.

Craig James says he eats at Calhoun's when he's in town, which is unquestionably the greatest sentence to escape his mouth. Collaros starts 10 for 12 himself - how much fun is this game? - but a third down drop kills the drive. Bray hits Da'Rick for five yards but Zach Rogers can't control a third down pass and the Vols go three and out. That leads to the second straight 4th and 1 stop for the Vol defense, perhaps the biggest play of the ballgame. The Vols recover from a chop block penalty with two straight completions and a tough 3rd and 4 run by Tauren Poole. That leads to the Da'Rick Rogers helmetless catch, and Tennessee leads 28-14 with just 1:15 to play in the half. Tyler Bray: 21 for 27, 281 yards, 3 TDs. Cincinnati misses a field goal to end the first half.

Third Quarter

Good teams take a lead and make it more, and that's exactly what Tennessee did to open the third. 10 plays, 70 yards, ending with Bray sneaking it in from the one yard line. Cincinnati had to feel like they were moving the ball up and down the field, but all of a sudden they're down 35-14. LET'S HAVE A REAL GOOD TIME.

Collaros is undaunted, converting a huge 3rd and 8 off busted coverage to keep Cincinnati alive. Former Vol signee Kenbrell Thompkins made another big catch at the one yard line. But witness once more the power of the Vol defense in short yardage: Collaros sneaks but can't get in, tries a draw out of the shotgun but can't get in, then a pass is broken up on third down. Butch Jones told Jeannine Edwards at halftime that if he had 4th and 1 he'd go for it again, but he's a liar: the Vols are clearly living in his head at this point, as the Bearcats settle for a field goal to make it 35-17.

Bray and Hunter connect for the eighth time on a great third down throw and catch to keep momentum. At this point, it's 26 first downs for Tennessee compared to just 13 for Cincinnati. Make it 27 on the next sequence as Bray hits Da'Rick, the third conversion on 3rd and 7+ for the Vols on the day. At this point UT has thrown it 35 times and run it 22 times, which sets up a play out of the 2010 playbook: let Bray throw it around for 2.5 quarters and build a lead, then let Tauren Poole grind it out. A long run from #28 moves it inside the 30, a sneak from Bray picks up another first, then Tyler fires to Zach Rogers for a touchdown and the dagger. 42-17 Vols; Bray is 30 for 37 for 364 yards and 4 TDs. The Vols take almost five minutes off the clock and leave just 1:24 left in the third quarter.

It's the little things: two touchbacks and an onside kick in the first half, and a fumble that forces Cincinnati to start at their own seven yard line on this drive. We go to the fourth.

Fourth Quarter

The Vols finally get a sack, dropping Collaros on 3rd and 8 in UT territory to kill a drive. Pinned back at their own four yard line on the punt, Bray hits Hunter on 3rd and 4 to gain breathing room and continue to milk the clock. But Rajion Neal gets his bell rung on the next play and loses the football. Collaros fires a touchdown pass in the corner but the Bearcats fail to convert the deuce on a great break up by Brian Randolph, making it 42-23 with 8:46 to play.

Here we go again: 3rd and 8 is no big deal, as Bray hits Da'Rick Rogers to keep the drive alive. Mike Patrick goes into a small thing about no one knowing how to pronounce "Neyland". John Ward says "KNEE-land", and that's good enough for me forever and ever amen.

Tauren Poole cracks 100 yards as the Vols keep milking the clock, then for his final completion Bray hits Brendan Downs on 3rd and 5 to again keep the drive going. ESPN runs the depressing graphic showing that six head coaches (two per football, basketball, baseball) and one athletic director have left Tennessee from March 2005-June 2011, then follows up with highlights from the LSU and UNC games. These are the bad things that happen when you're blowing someone out and the broadcast needs filler. Palardy knocks it through from 37, and that will do it.

Final Thoughts

Here's a look at the insane stats from this performance, with some questions about what it means for the 2012 Vols.

  • Tyler Bray became the first non-Manning to throw for more than 400 yards in a Tennessee uniform. 34 of 42 for 408 yards and 4 TDs isn't going to happen every week - we ranked Bray's performance as the 8th best in UT history - but it remains the best example of Bray's potential. When people talk about Bray as a Top 5 draft pick, this game is the number one reason why. And if Bray is truly that good, Tennessee's offense is in good hands.
  • Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter became the first duo to each catch 10 passes in one game. They also both had 100+ receiving yards, the third time in school history that's happened...the second time was the week before against Montana. There have been exceptional receiving duos in Vol history like Kent & Nash, Meachem & Swain, and Stallworth & Washington. But Rogers and Hunter have a chance to surpass Pickens & Harper as the most talented and most dangerous duo to ever take the field in Knoxville if they play like this.
  • It's not all big plays. Tennessee's scoring drives: 7 plays, 5 plays, 7 plays, 9 plays, 10 plays, 11 plays, 10 plays. 34 first downs. +14 in time of possession. 10 of 13 on third down. All of these numbers are completely unfair.
  • If the pass game is this great, everything else really just has to be good enough. Specifically, that would be the running game (126 yards on this day) and the defense. Cincinnati had 396 yards of offense and Isaiah Pead finished with 155 yards, but the Vol defense made every stop they had to make. And remember: no turnovers, only one sack. The run game was helped with late runs against a defense worn down by Bray, as was the case with Ole Miss and Kentucky in 2010. If there's a blueprint for success in 2012, I believe this win, this way is very much it.