A Day in the Sun

Tennessee 52  Mississippi 14

13 Nov 2010 | Neyland Stadium | 96,044

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The Tennessee Vols looked like a bunch of youngsters with their whole lives ahead of them, without a care in the world. The Ole Miss Rebels looked old, tired, confused, and not up to the challenge.

As predicted, Tyler Bray used a beautiful autumn afternoon to cement his place as the Vols’ QB. All he did was display a cool, calm, almost a caution-to-the-wind demeanor, throwing 18-of-34 for 323 yards, 3 TDs, and no INTs.

Furthermore, he gave this football program a fresh coat of beautiful, orange paint. Yes, he made mistakes today, including many throws that were not nearly as accurate as desired, but he made some drop-dead, beautifully-paced throws to receivers who are beginning to believe that Christmas happens every Saturday.

After all, Santa Claus is now a tall, skinny dude from the southern San Joaquin Valley.

*****

The big story was how the Vols won the turnover tally, 5-0.

Tennessee defensive back Prentiss Waggner is congratulated by teammate Janzen Jackson after intercepting a pass from Ole Miss, one of five Rebel turnovers to the Vols. Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess.

After Tennessee got a very fortunate bounce off the hands of a Rebel linebacker, resulting in a 80-yard TD gallop by Justin Hunter on the Vols’ first play from scrimmage, and after Bray then threw a pinpoint strike to Denarius Moore along the left side of the endzone to put the Vols up by two TDs, little Eric Gordon shrugged off a receiver on a route to view the developing play, and stepped in front of a Rebel receiver on the left sideline for an interception which he ran all the way into the Ole Miss endzone.

The first quarter had yet to expire, and the Vols were already up 21-0 on only 10 offensive plays. It was the first of five turnovers by the Rebels.

Ole Miss turned to the running game for a bit of time, enough to make it 21-7 and let the Vols know they were going to perhaps have to score a barn full of points to win their first conference game of this season. But the Big Orange defense stepped to the fore and allowed the Rebs only one more score. Early in the second half, with the Vols needing perhaps only one more score on top of a 31-14 lead to put this one in the win column, Rebel QB Jeremiah Masoli, who was announced as the starter just before game time, threw an ill-advised floater on a screen pass play that was corralled by Vol Prentiss Waggner and returned all the way into the end zone.

And on the next Ole Miss possession, Janzen Jackson picked off a terrible Masoli pass over the middle, essentially ending the afternoon with most of the second half left to play out. Toward the end of the third quarter, the Vols pounced on a Rebel fumble that was followed by a Tauren Poole 35-yard ramble into the endzone to make it 52-14. Later, local Knoxville native Anthony Anderson intercepted a Nathan Stanley pass to make it five turnovers to Tennessee.

*****

It has to be admitted that there were three plays in which the Vols were very fortunate, allowing the winds to keep blowing in the direction of Tennessee and keeping the Rebels at bay.

The first play from scrimmage previously mentioned – it could have just as easily gone Ole Miss’ way as a pick-six – made me momentarily think that four-leaved clovers are colored orange.

Then there were a couple of Ole Miss punts to Janzen Jackson, our latest version of punt returner. With the Vols up 28-7, Janzen fumbled a punt near his own goal line, forcing the ball toward the near side line. That was the key – a Rebel coverage man fell on the ball, but his legs were lying out of bounds, allowing the Vols to retain possession instead of giving Mississippi a redzone opportunity to score and get back in the game. Much later, after the game had been put pretty much out of reach at 45-14, Janzen fumbled a punt while trying to catch it on his right side instead of directly in front of him. Admittedly, the fumble was more due to his not calling a fair catch and the resulting instantaneous hit after contact with the ball, but this was the glaring weak point of the Vols’ game today – how we recovered the fumble is still a result of a quirky bounce on the ground.

But let’s face it – we were long overdue for a game in which nearly everything went our way.

*****

Other points of interest…

Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt talks with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who turned out to be more liability than asset for the Rebels on Saturday. Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess.

Kudos to Vol RB Tauren Poole, who ran 12 carries for 107 yards, becoming the SEC leader with six 100-yard rushing games. His two TD runs in the second half, a 36-yarder right up the gut followed by a 35-yarder to finish the afternoon’s scoring, left the Ole Miss defense looking like they had called it quits. Poole now has over 1,000 yards in his career, and with more than 800 yards rushing this season, has a realistic shot at eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark for the year against two anemic defenses against the run, Vandy and Kentucky, that remain on the schedule.

A key component of the Vols’ victory was big plays on third down. In the first half, three of Tennessee’s five 3rd-down conversions were on plays of 13, 10, and 15 yards. That’s big. The Volunteers finished the day 7-of-16 on 3rd down conversions, which is evident of huge improvement in this important facet of the game.

Tennessee has become an entertaining team to watch, just as coach Derek Dooley promised during his introductory press conference in January. Right after Ole Miss scored at the beginning of the second quarter to cut the Vol lead to 21-7, the Tennessee kickoff return sported a risky reverse. Janzen Jackson took a handoff from the right sideline all the way to the left side of the field into Mississippi territory. That gave the Rebels a message that we weren’t afraid of them getting back into the ball game, which they never did.

It was good to see Daniel Lincoln kicking FGs again. His 43-yarder late in the second quarter that made it 31-14 gave the former All-American a perfect 8-for-8 on FGs this season.

Could Justin Hunter become the next All-American at the once-proud All-Receiver-U? His TD catch in the second quarter was all-star stuff. Bray obviously has the mindset of letting the playmakers make the plays. Hunter is a big-time playmaker of the future for the Big Orange.

I’m not sure what’s going on with kicker Michael Palardy. Most of his kickoffs were rather short. Was this by design? The coverage was stellar on almost every kick, but I’d rather see kickoffs booming off the wall behind the goalposts.

Rebel QB Jeremiah Masoli didn’t look right. Three INTs plus several errant throws made me think that it was perhaps concussion cobwebs and a lack of practice this week rather than the Vol defense that was causing the San Francisco Area native to look like a second-rate QB for much of the afternoon. You had to wonder why coach Nutt started Masoli. But, this was a big game for Ole Miss as much as it was for Tennessee. With the loss, Mississippi’s season is all but over. The Rebels need wins in their last two games – against LSU and Mississippi State – to become bowl eligible. I wouldn’t waste a dime with the chance for a million dollars on that happening.

Only 96,044 on a beautiful, sun-drenched, homecoming afternoon? I sure as hell hope to see six figures in the house when Kentucky comes calling in two weeks.

*****

In the end, Tennessee did what they needed to do to win – everything and more.

Tennessee tailback Tauren Pools runs for a touchdown against Ole Miss at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, his sixth 100-yard rushing game this season to lead the SEC in that category. Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess.

First, their defense contained the Ole Miss option by successfully playing assignment football. Second, the Vols made big play after big play: the first fortuitous 80-yard TD pass play; two pick-sixes; three big 3rd-down conversions in the first half; and two big Tauren Poole TD runs. And last but not least, Tennessee protected the football. With the help of two very lucky recoveries of Janzen Jackson fumbles on punt returns, the Vols finished the day with no turnovers to the Rebels.

The Volunteers are now serious contenders for a bowl appearance. Tennessee now looks ahead to next week’s match in Nashville against Vandy followed by what will likely be an all-out war against Kentucky in two weeks back home. But I’m going to resist the temptation to daydream, and instead enjoy the memories of a well-deserved win by a team guided by a coaching staff who somehow kept this bunch of outmanned players together during a forgettable October.

I’m going to dwell in the glow of a near-perfect performance on a perfect autumn afternoon that would have made Robert Neyland proud. Important, because the General was keeping watch just outside the old ballyard, as he will be for decades to come.

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2 responses to “A Day in the Sun”

  1. rockytop78 says :

    As you suggest, Neyland’s Game Maxims #1 and #2 basically tell the story here: “The team with the fewest mistakes will win,” and “Play for and make the breaks, and when one comes your way, SCORE!” If we can’t win with a 5-0 differential, we shouldn’t even go out on the field. Neyland would have been pleased about it all (including the pick-sixes — or as General Neyland would say, “oskie-wow-wow”).

    I watched the game today from Section B, and I concur with your assessment of Masoli as suffering from the lingering effects of the concussion and/or related practice limitations. It seemed like time and time again he was underthrowing passes, overthrowing passes, bouncing passes off the ground, throwing softballs up for grabs — there just appeared to be a problem with his hand-eye coordination, not to mention being on the same page as his receivers. I’m not a physician, but it seems the most likely explanation of how such a talented athlete could botch things so badly. Masoli did not seem to be the same quarterback who played so well against Auburn a week ago. But whatever the real reason, I am glad that it happened today while he was playing the Vols!

    In fairness, I thought that Bray also threw a few passes behind his receivers, and made one or two unwise decisions with his passes (the very first play, for example, when he obviously didn’t see the Ole Miss defender who deflected his pass into the air). But today, unlike when we played LSU, the breaks went out way and stayed our way.

    I know that you may not follow Ole Miss football too closely, but do you have any sense of whether Houston Nutt may have a short shelf life as Ole Miss’s head coach after this season?

  2. NorCalVol says :

    Nutt was incredibly successful (on the field) at Arkansas, but the soap opera regarding recruits and assistant coaches brought him down. Read here:
    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/writers/stewart_mandel/02/22/arkansas.nutt/index.html
    After his first season in Oxford when he righted the ship after Coach O nearly sunk it, the Rebs have underwhelmed. The fan base wanted him fired after the embarrassment against Jacksonville State to begin this year’s season. But then, the same fan base became so obsessed with mascot issues, I don’t think they’ve looked up, until perhaps now.
    This was an embarrassing loss because I think everybody in the Reb circle felt that Tennessee football had fallen off the map. When they lose to LSU and then to State, I believe the talk will strengthen.
    Nutt will eventually bring himself down – he seems destined to do so – with some kind of silly stuff. It’s just a feeling I get from listening to him. Baseless, I’m sure, but a gut hunch.
    The main writer at Red Cup Rebellion was heard on RTT’s webcast this week as saying that Nutt is little more than an offensive coordinator, meaning that (1) he knows nothing about defense and/or fully delegates to the D coaches.
    Ole Miss has to be one of the most difficult places in the SEC to construct a sustainable winning program, and perhaps the most difficult behind Vandy, Kentucky, and South Carolina. It could have something to do with the school’s leadership, which is hated with great intensity by it’s student body and fans.
    It will be an interesting December after the Rebs finish 4-8.

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