Vols Throttle Cincinnati
A Vol record-setting passing game, two timely defensive stops, and a perfectly-executed onsides kick kept a dynamic Cincinnati offense from making a game of it.
This was hopefully a stepping-stone win. It certainly feels like it.
The bottom line is that Tennessee is 2-0 for the first time since 2006 and will go to Gainesville next Saturday with belief and a growing maturity.
This game was defined by the first half – 580 total yards of offense were gained by both teams. It was as entertaining a half as a fan could want. Neyland Stadium was in fine form, too – a fortress of support under a beautiful, late-summer sky.
It was filled with significant moments.
The early one was the onsides kick. Cincinnati opened the game with a quick score – a 65-yard scamper by Isaiah Pead (who had 155 yards on 14 carries for the day) down the right sideline that was kick-started by the poor tackling of Daryl Vereen. It could have been deflating. But after two very poor rushing attempts, Vol QB Tyler Bray hit Da’Rick Rogers for a key 3rd down conversion, leading to a short Marlin Lane TD run.
Dooley must have felt this was a key opportunity.
Vol PK Michael Palardy crafted football’s equivalent of a drag bunt to recover his own onsides kick after 12 yards of perfect bounces. Five plays later, Bray hit Justin Hunter on a pinpoint perfect pass for a 33 yard TD.
An instant 0-7 deficit had been turned into a 14-7 lead with the boldness of coach and his QB.
The next significant moments were pairs of 2nd quarter defensive stops.
We’ll never know if they saved the afternoon – both were at midfield, not at the goal line – but there was no mistaking the fact that they pumped fuel into the team and crowd.
Cincinnati had evened the game at 14-14 and Vol RB Marlin Lane fumbled the pill to the Bearcats. It looked like the predicted track meet would leave us all breathless at the end of the afternoon. But, Cincinnati ended up punting, and the Vols answered that Bearcat failure to capitalize with a Bray pass settling into the arms of an all-alone Da’Rick Rogers.
21-14 Vols, but surely the ‘Cats would just answer with another score. On a 3rd and long, a Cincy pass completion left the Bearcats at midfield, 4th and a single inch.
Cincinnati Head Coach Butch Jones gambled, and the Vol defensive front smothered.
Even though the Vols couldn’t score on the ensuing possession, the Bearcats’ looked shocked. Their 72 points of last week looked like a distant memory.
Later in the quarter, Cincinnati had deja vu: 4th and less than a yard at midfield.
Again, Jones gambled, and again, the Vol defense smothered.
Neyland Stadium was on fire.
Bray and Company continued to light it up. Cincinnati’s defense, who it seemed were now perpetually on the field, looked exhausted. Not even a chop-block-penalty by Vol TE Michael Rivera could keep the Vols from doubling up the score as the half was ticking away. A Bray Bullet perfectly split two Bearcat defenders in the checkerboard and ended up in Da’Rick Rogers’ hands as he sat in the end zone, sans helmet.
The Vol OL allowed the running game to sputter by looking more interested in dancing with their opponents than driving them back.
But, they certainly didn’t let the Cincinnati DL get to their most precious asset. Bray had a 21-for-27 first-half passing that created 247 yards and 3 TDs. His twin sophomore star receivers, Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers, seemed incapable of running a bad route or dropping a perfect pass.
Everything from Bray to his posse looked easy, but also had that boldness and aggressive energy of pure confidence.
The sophomore threesome gave us not glimpses of future possibility, but evidence of present greatness.
At the end of the day, Bray was 34 of 41 for 405 yards and 4 TDs. He became the first Vol QB to pass for 2 TDs in eight consecutive games, eclipsing Peyton Manning’s previous record of 7. He was simply stunning in his total command of the game.
Justin Hunter’s 10 receptions for 156 yards and Da’Rick Rogers’ 10 catches for 100 yards became the first pair of Tennessee receivers to have 10 catches each in a single game.
The potential significance of this collective performance of this fabulous trio cannot be understated.
What should also be mentioned as significant was the Vols’ management of the second half.
Last week, Tennessee lost focus after having Montana down for the count early. Today, the Vols offense threw together three, 10-plus-play, time-eating drives that all ended up with a score. They were perfect blends of runs and passes that had a different look from first-half possessions. They were drives of measured execution, with a distinct purpose of killing off the game. They achieved their purpose.
The Vol defense held the Bearcats to a lone field goal in the third quarter and a dubious TD pass in the fourth.
This second half looked managed by a group of veterans rather than a collection of young men barely old enough to drive.
I have to give kudos to Senior TB Tauren Pool and Junior TE Michael Rivera.
Again, the collective Vol rushing attack was underwhelming – 126 yards on 35 carries (3.6 yds per carry with only 19 yards as the longest). But, Tauren Poole played with the commitment of the Senior leader that he is. There were instances when his OL gave him nothing – so, he slid laterally, and when holes were filled by encroaching LBs, he turned a loss into a gain by committing to a sideline route. He finished 101 yards on 21 carries for nearly a 5 yard per carry average.
His example of leadership by relentless play will carry this team through difficult game situations in coming weeks.
Michael Rivera already looks like the sure-handed TE that every team needs. Today’s 6 receptions for 54 yards were not overlooked. He appears to be a clutch safety valve when Bray is quickly able to read a blitz or tight downfield coverage.
This may have been the most important game of the Vol season – it likely ensures victories over the six teams that must be beaten. Surely Cincinnati is far superior to the upcoming squads of Buffalo, Middle Tennessee, Vandy, and Kentucky.
But it may be even more significant than that.
Today was a significant step by a team who look like they are learning to win games, one quarter at a time.
And they are doing so under the on-field command of perhaps the best young QB in the country.
Billy wins this week’s picks. His +24 win margin was the closest to the +22 actual. RockyTop78 earns the prize for the closest point total. His 66 total was just 2 shy of the 68 collectively scored by both teams.