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2011: The Last Worthless Evening

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The following is an excerpt from Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 Magazine:

Tennessee entered the 2011 season expecting a build a bridge between rock bottom and the promised land, but ended the 2011 season at a lower point than ever before under Derek Dooley. The reasons many believe 2012 will be "the year" for Dooley haven't changed; we saw how valuable they were by their presence in early September and their absence soon after. Crippled by injuries and facing an obscenely difficult schedule in the nation's best conference, 2011 became a story of survival instead of progress. When the value of your third string quarterback's redshirt becomes a key talking point for the year, you know you're in trouble. In the end the Vols failed to qualify for a bowl game for the second time in four years, an outcome made even more painful because of the who and the how of the seventh and final defeat. Dooley's Vols - already familiar with bad aftertastes given the events of the Music City Bowl the year before - acquired enough scars in the loss to Kentucky to last the lifetime of each player's collegiate career. 2011 now means 2012 is "the year" in more ways than one: for Tennessee and for Derek Dooley, it's either climb up or die trying. Because of what happened last year, the calls for patience that have bloodied the ears of the Tennessee faithful for the last three seasons will go unheeded from this point forward.

Here's a look back at last year's path to rock bottom: the faint and future hope of what went right, the obvious gaps in talent and experience in what went wrong, and what we can learn from the lost season which ensured that 2012 will matter more than ever...

September 3 - Tennessee 42 Montana 16

After the second weather delay in as many seasons in Neyland Stadium, the 2011 campaign got off to an even more ominous start with a three and out against an FCS opponent. But thankfully, Montana fumbled the ensuing punt and the Vols went razzle-dazzle on the very next play, a 47 yard flea flicker to Da'Rick Rogers for a touchdown. While any success against an FCS opponent must be taken in context, those who were concerned about how Rogers and fellow sophomore Justin Hunter would fare at wide receiver now that they were the primary targets had their fears instantly calmed: Hunter pulled down an 81 yard touchdown on the following drive, and the rout was on. The duo would combine for 11 catches and 246 of Tyler Bray's 293 passing yards on the day. The other key piece to Tennessee's passing attack was also sharp, as Bray completed 70.8% of his passes.

If successes against an FCS opponent are taken with a grain of salt, struggles are frightful eye-openers that, in this case, most of us chalked up to the nature of season openers and tried to pretend it would be okay. But when the Vols ran the ball 46 times for just 128 yards - a robust 2.8 yards per carry - many were alarmed. And as the season played out, it turned out they had every right to be.

Montana broke the Tennessee defense with an 80 yard touchdown pass late in the first half, then tackled Tauren Poole in the end zone for a safety to open the second. But a pick six by Art Evans put the Vols up 35-9 and put the game out of reach. Tennessee finished off Montana 42-16, with plenty of room for improvement, but it was Derek Dooley's orange pants that dominated the conversation.

September 10 - Tennessee 45 Cincinnati 23

If you're looking for hope, here it is.

Two teams with head coaches in their second year looked to make an early impact on the second Saturday of the season, and this one did not hesitate to entertain: Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead broke a 65 yard touchdown run on the third play from scrimmage. But on this day Tennessee responded to adversity beautifully: Tyler Bray led Tennessee on a seven play touchdown drive capped off by freshman Marlin Lane from the two yard line. Then Derek Dooley got aggressive, dialing up an onside kick which Michael Palardy recovered himself. When Cincinnati tried to play press coverage, Justin Hunter beat it on a go route for a 14-7 Tennessee lead. Cincinnati answered with a touchdown of its own, and it was 14-14 just six minutes into the game.

A Marlin Lane fumble gave the ball back to Cincinnati, but Tennessee's defense caught its breath and began to make its presence felt. Twice in the second quarter they turned Cincinnati away on 4th and 1 near midfield, sending Dooley charging onto the field with fist pumps aplenty and bringing the Neyland Stadium crowd to their feet. In the meantime, Tyler Bray was turning in one of the greatest passing performances in school history, hitting Da'Rick Rogers for two touchdowns in the second quarter. The first came easy due to busted coverage from the Bearcats, but the degree of difficulty on the second was much higher: Bray fired into a tight window that closed on Rogers' helmet, which came flying off his head in the end zone. But gasps turned to cheers in Knoxville, as a smiling Da'Rick Rogers held on to the football to give Tennessee a huge 28-14 lead with just 1:15 left to play in the half. Cincinnati missed a field goal to send the Vols to the locker room with even more momentum.

And Tennessee wasted no time seizing it in the third quarter with a ten play, seventy yard drive capped off by Bray sneaking it in from the one yard line for a 35-14 lead. Quarterback Zach Collaros led Cincinnati downfield once more, and the Bearcats had 1st and goal at the one yard line. But again the Vol defense was at its best when needed most, turning away Cincinnati three times from the one and forcing head coach Butch Jones to surrender for just three points in the exchange. When Tyler Bray responded with his fourth touchdown pass, this one to Zach Rogers, the damage was done: 42-17 Vols late in the third quarter. A Rajion Neal fumble allowed Cincinnati to score in the fourth, but three from Michael Palardy gave the final margin of 45-23 Tennessee.

History paid attention. Tyler Bray finished 34 for 41 for 408 yards and four touchdowns, becoming the first non-Manning to throw for 400+ at the University of Tennessee. Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter each had ten catches, the first time two players had caught ten passes in one game in UT history.

Cincinnati would win their next six games before an injury to Zach Collaros cost them in a close loss to West Virginia and another stumble at Rutgers the following week. But the Bearcats would finish the season 10-3, meaning this performance stands up very well. The blueprint for success, both then and now, was clear: if Bray, Rogers, Hunter, and the passing game could be this great, the Vols would merely need to be good enough on the ground and on defense to succeed. With real excitement beginning to stir in Knoxville once more, the Vols moved to 2-0 for the first time since 2006, and set their sights on Gainesville.

September 17 - Florida 33 Tennessee 23

The first meeting between Derek Dooley and Will Muschamp carried a hype that was both different and familiar. With Phillip Fulmer, Lane Kiffin, and Urban Meyer removed from the equation, there was less animosity between the Vols and Gators. But the way Tennessee played against Cincinnati sparked a wave of anticipation from UT fans not seen in years; it was the first time since 2006 that Tennessee came into the Florida game 2-0.

There have been a handful of plays in recent Tennessee history that have changed the narrative of an entire season. At times a play has swung the season in a positive direction: Collins Cooper's missed field goal in overtime in 1998, or Robert Meachem streaking downfield against Cal in the 2006 opener. And at times it goes the other way: an Arkansas field goal splitting the uprights to signal the beginning of Johnny Majors' end in 1992, or a crushing fumble through the end zone in Tuscaloosa in 2005. The worst of these moments come through injury: Jerry Colquitt's career over on the seventh play of the 1994 season, Erik Ainge's freshman campaign coming to a premature end against Notre Dame. But never has it felt more devastating than on the fourth play of Tennessee's first offensive series on this day in Gainesville.

After Florida took the opening kickoff and went 80 yards in nine plays to lead 7-0, Tennessee had 3rd and 10 at their own 30. Tyler Bray calmly found Justin Hunter downfield for first down yardage. Hunter made the catch, planted his foot and tried to spin back the other way. But Hunter's knee didn't cooperate, and in an awful heartbeat, everything changed.

Non-contact injuries are always the worst in sports, and when Hunter's body crumpled to the ground, every Tennessee fan could only think of the three worst letters in sports: ACL. And unfortunately, we were right. Tennessee's spectacular sophomore watched his season come to an end in two games and one play...and all the hope of just seven days before vanished into thin air.

Tennessee, to its credit, didn't quit. But in a familiar script, the Vols failed to take advantage of key opportunities against the Gators. That same drive ended when Tauren Poole couldn't convert a 3rd and 1 at the Florida 20, and Michael Palardy missed a 37 yard field goal. With the Gators leading 10-0 early in the second quarter, a UT punt was blocked by Vol killer Chris Rainey. The damage again was only three points, but all the momentum was wearing blue.

Down 16-0 and backed up at their own 11 yard line, the Vols found a pulse with less than four minutes to play in the half. Tyler Bray connected with Da'Rick Rogers for 22 yards and Mychal Rivera for 20 more, and a pair of pass interference calls on the Gators prolonged the drive. Bray found Marlin Lane for a touchdown from eight yards out to put the Vols on the board at 16-7, and create hope heading into the locker room. But on the first play of the third quarter, Bray was intercepted by Josh Evans, and Trey Burton punched it in on 4th and goal at the one yard line to put Florida up 23-7.

Then came the backbreaker: an 83 yard dump pass to Chris Rainey, who broke one tackle and that was the end of the story. The Gators led 30-7 with eight minutes to play in the third quarter, and visions of another blowout in Gainesville were certainly on the table.

Freshman linebacker A.J. Johnson sparked a rally by forcing a Jeff Demps fumble at the Gator 36. Bray hit Da'Rick Rogers for a score but the Vols missed an ill-timed two point conversion, leaving Florida in front 30-13 as the game moved to the fourth quarter. The Vols had 1st and goal at the Florida 11, but a first down fumble sent them back to the 24 and UT had to settle for a field goal. Florida was able to chew more than six minutes off the clock with ten straight runs, getting those three points back and putting the Vols down three possessions with just seven minutes to play. Bray hit Rivera for his third touchdown of the day to make it 33-23 with less than five to play, then got the ball back after a three and out. The Vols moved to midfield but Bray had to force it with the clock ticking, and his second pick of the day ended the threat.

The seventh straight loss to Florida hurt, but all the attention was on Hunter after the game. Freshman DeAnthony Arnett was strong with eight catches for 58 yards, and Bray did most of his work despite picking up snaps off the ground much of the day from James Stone, but the focus now shifted to the rest of the offense: without Hunter, how good could this team really be? And now without the dynamic passing game that flourished against Cincinnati, could the Vols rely on their ground game?

* * * *

November 26 – Kentucky 10 Tennessee 7

The nation's longest active winning streak in an annual rivalry had been in jeopardy several times in the last few years. Kentucky had become a strong program, regularly earning bowl eligibility and beating plenty of other SEC powers. The Vols' last two trips to Lexington had required overtime to get the job done, but Tennessee always, always found a way. This Kentucky team was struggling and would employ wide receiver Matt Roark at quarterback on this fateful day. The tactic threw the Vol defense off on UK's opening drive, which was good for three points. And unbelievably, that was all the scoring this game would see until the fourth quarter.

In the second quarter Michael Palardy had a field goal blocked, and the Vols went for it on 4th and 4 at the Kentucky 31 but failed to convert. The spark appeared to come midway through the third, when Tyler Bray hit Rajion Neal for 44 yards to the Kentucky 8. But two plays later Tennessee went to its wildcat package with Neal in the shotgun, and a mishandled snap gave the ball back to a Kentucky team that was now starting to believe.

That belief was enough to take advantage of the Tennessee defense for just one drive. The Cats went 77 yards in 8 plays for their only touchdown and a 10-0 lead with 14:06 to play. Any celebration appeared premature: the Vols raced downfield in three plays thanks to another Bray-to-Neal connection, this one from 59 yards for a score to make it 10-7. The Vols always found a way against Kentucky, and with still 12:52 to play it seemed like this would just be the latest form of heartbreak in the bluegrass.

But for the first time against Kentucky and for yet another time for Derek Dooley, on this day heartbreak was wearing orange. An ailing Bray, who had been sick all week, went three and out on UT's next two drives. Kentucky couldn't move the ball, but it didn't have to as the clock continued to tick. On UT's last effort, Bray and Neal connected for 13 yards on 3rd and 10 to give the Vols hope. But a sack on second down left the Vols with 3rd and 17 at their own 34, and on fourth down Bray was intercepted. And suddenly, everything had come crashing down.

It wasn't just the loss to Kentucky or the missed opportunity to play in a bowl game. Whatever momentum Tennessee and Derek Dooley had saved from Tyler Bray's return in the win over Vanderbilt instantly disappeared. The 2011 season had become a bridge to nowhere, and the temperature on Derek Dooley's seat increased dramatically. An almost complete overhaul of the staff would follow.

Tennessee was decimated by injuries last season, but at full strength they showed such promise against Cincinnati. Returning to full strength in 2012 with a schedule that appears to be much more kind, opportunity awaits once more for Dooley and the Vols. Above all, 2011 means 2012 will matter, in more ways than one.



You can find the rest of the 2011 recaps in the Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 print edition ($19.99), and also in the Kindle version ($9.99) and the ebook (a downloadable PDF) for $7.99.