Tennessee came into Saturday's game looking to put whatever demons remained from last week's loss to Florida behind them.
Facing an 0-4 Massachusetts Minutemen team - one of the worst FBS programs in the country - most would think that the Vols would come out and handle business.
However, those assumptions were demolished quickly and the demons were still there as UT found themselves in the middle of an unlikely dog fight on Rocky Top.
Tennessee's defense anchored the team in this game. They registered a season-high seven sacks and dominated on third down during a very efficient day, but it wasn't enough to keep the Vols out of another nail-biter.
Comis keeps, but Kongbo and Phillips are there to make the stop. Another UMass three-and-out. pic.twitter.com/vxE8ZZWSqv— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) September 23, 2017
The Vols were able to get out to a 14-6 lead at halftime, but the first half was filled with plenty of major mistakes - including an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Butch Jones which resulted in a touchdown for UMass - that had Tennessee looking very similar to the team that lost in Gainesville last week.
Even though Tennessee sludged their way through most of the first half on offense, there were several bright spots for the Vols. The Quinten Dormady to Brandon Johnson connection continued to evolve as Johnson recorded a career high 114 receiving yards on six catches, which included a season long play of 66 yards.
Running back John Kelly was his usual self and dominated on the ground. The Vols finally gave him double-digit carries in the first half for the first time this season and he did not disappoint, gaining 80 yards on 14 carries with a touchdown.
Your halftime stats. Looked ugly in the 1st quarter, but the Vols find some rhythm in the 2nd quarter: pic.twitter.com/exqvmWGwDe— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) September 23, 2017
The defense played very well and held their own as expected throughout the first two quarters. Linebacker Daniel Bituli continues to impress with his speed and athleticism. There was one play in particular on third drive of the game for the Minutemen where he tracked down running back Bilal Ally from behind for a small gain.
Don't get me wrong - I am a huge fan of Colton Jumper (effort and intangibles-wise), but he is not the best option for us at linebacker and if he would have been in on this play instead of Bituli, then I don't think Ally would have been tackled and he could have ripped off a huge gain on this play.
Kelly and wide receiver Tyler Bird scored the first two touchdowns of the game for the Vols. Freshman kicker Brent Cimaglia missed a 45-yard field goal that could have increased the lead.
Dormady finds Byrd in the back of the endzone. Good protection, great throw. pic.twitter.com/MZDpviSudR— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) September 23, 2017
But the second half was a story of its own.
The coaching staff once again made an extremely questionable decision concerning in-game management when they decided to pull Quinten Dormady in favor of playing backup quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.
Dormady had the Vols in the lead, up 17-6 about midway through the third quarter. He had a streak where he completed ten straight passes in the first half and he had just led the Vols on a scoring drive that resulted in a field goal.
Before he was pulled in the third quarter, Dormady's stats were 16/25 for 174 yards and 1TD. The Vols had 293 total yards after he led them on the last scoring drive that resulted in kicker Aaron Medley's 40-yard field goal.
Guarantano played in a total of three drives. The Vols accumulated a total of 10 yards on 11 plays.
By the time Dormady came back in midway through the fourth quarter Tennessee had gained just five yards on offense, and the Minutemen had scored a touchdown to make the game a one possession contest at 17-13.
Fortunately for the Vols, the Minutemen's starting quarterback Andrew Ford was knocked out in the third quarter and would not return to the game. Backup quarterback Russ Comis was unable to do anything at all and the Minutemen stalled on offense as soon as Comis entered the game.
UMass had one chance left at victory when they got the ball back on their own 15-yard line with a minute left to go. But Tennessee's defense shut them down with almost no problem in order to seal the victory for the Vols.
Tennessee finished with 319 total yards of offense, one turnover and no sacks allowed. Massachusetts finished with 281 total yards of offense, no turnovers, and seven sacks allowed.
Players of the Game:
RB, John Kelly: He may as well have his name written in stone in this section, because he is guaranteed to be here every week. Kelly finished with 25 carries for 101 yards and a touchdown.
WR, Brandon Johnson: For the first time this season a receiver not named Marquez Callaway stepped up and made huge plays for the Vols. Johnson finished with seven receptions for 123 yards.
QB, Andrew Ford: Ford had his team in the game until his injury, which is what cost UMass this game. Who knows what would have happened if he stayed healthy. Ford finished 11/17 for 129 yards and a touchdown.
RB, Marquis Young: Another inferior opponent was able to find running room against the Vols. Young had 14 carries for 76 yards on the day.