Vols Survive Akron in Knoxville
Beginning with Tyler Bray’s pass that was intercepted and returned for an Akron touchdown on just the fourth play of the game, Tennessee found themselves in a difficult position for much of this game. It wasn’t until the Vols were able to get their third interception deep into the final quarter that Big Orange Country was able to exhale.
For the neutral fan, this was a highly entertaining game. A tally of 977 total yards, 630 of which were in the air, will tend to create that kind of enjoyable viewing. But for the Volunteer fan, this was anything but fun. There were visions of a season-destroying loss that kept appearing in the collective consciousness of the Vol Nation.
At the end of the first quarter, Tennessee had run an astounding total of 38 plays from scrimmage, more than tripling Akron’s total of 12. Yet, the game score was knotted at 10-a-piece.
Akron would not go away.
Tennessee had responded well to the game’s opening gambit by the Zips’ Pick Six that made it 7-0 Akron with only a handful of seconds having run off the game clock. On the very next possession, the Vols calmly marched down the field with a 14-play, 75-yard drive capped by a two-yard TD run by Vol linebacker-turned-running back A.J. “The Beast” Johnson. And on the second play of Akron’s following possession, Vol safety Byron Moore made his first of two interceptions on the night, gathering the Zips’ pass near midfield and returning the play to Akron’s 28 yard line, leading to Derrick Brodus’ 37-yard field goal.
With momentum finally gathering for the Vols, Akron still would not go away.
Of course, Tennessee had to invite Akron back into the party when Vol TB Rajion Neal fumbled on the end of a 10-yard run that seemed to gain a first down at the Tennessee 29 yard line. A 45-yard field goal put the Zips into the 10-10 tie.
Both teams opened the second quarter by trading field goals on consecutive possessions, before the Vols immediately struck with a TD on a drive kept alive by a 48 yard reception by Zach Rogers at the Zips’ 5 yard line on a 3rd down and 9 situation. Tight end Brendan Downes caught the scoring pass, a 6 yarder, along the right side of the end zone.
It was 20-13 Vols, and Tennessee looked ready to put the pesky visitors away.
But Akron still would not go away.
On the very next possession, Akron quickly drove into the Tennessee red zone where the Vol defense stiffened, holding the Zips to their third field goal, cutting the Vol lead to 20-16. The Vols responded though, by quickly moving the ball into Akron territory. But by the time Tennessee found themselves at the Zips 29 yard line with a 4th-and-1 and A.J. Johnson in the Vol backfield, head coach Terry Bowden and his staff figured out that a linebacker in the wildcat formation meant only one thing. The newly-successful “Beast Formation” went bust when Johnson was brought down by four defenders as if A.J. had jumped over a retaining wall into the lion habitat at the zoo.
And that is where the game changed. Not only did Akron not go away, but they nearly stole the game near the end of the half.
With the Vols sluggishly changing their squad after the 4th-and-1 failure, the Zips’ offense anticipated the situation perfectly. A handoff to Quentin Hines caught the Tennessee defense on their heels when he raced 70 yards through Sal Sunseri’s defense to put the Zips up 23-20 with a couple of minutes before halftime.
The Vols were stunned. The fans were incensed.
Give Tennessee their due credit. Tyler Bray hit Justin Hunter for a gain of 21, then Rajion Neal for 8, and then Marlin Lane for 36 that would have been a touchdown if not for the running back stepping out of bounds on the left sideline. But, the Vols had to settle for Derrick Brodus’ third field goal of the evening.
Against a motivated team, Tennessee found themselves tied 23-23 at the half, staring down the barrel of the looming second half that would test the resolve of a Vols squad smarting from last week’s late meltdown.
Nightmares, not sugarplums, were the mental visions for Vol fans as the Zips opened the third quarter my merrily marching through the Tennessee defense. After a drive-opening run of only 3 yards, Akron followed with 8 consecutive passing plays, putting the Zips in the Tennessee red zone. If not for the drive-ending interception by Vol safety Byron Moore at the goal line, his second of the evening, the game-ending score could have been significantly different.
Two Tennessee possessions later, and the score still tied 23-23, Vol TE Mychal Rivera caught a 19-yard pass at the Akron 36 yard line. But Rivera’s fumble at the end of the play was recovered by the Zips, turning the mood in Neyland Stadium to near desperation.
Fortunately, Derek Dooley requested a video replay, and equally fortunately, the camera angle was sufficient to clearly show that Rivera’s knee was touching the ground by the time the ball was knocked loose.
The Vols retained possession to keep the finger in the dike, and after Justin Hunter caught a 25-yard pass near the goal line followed by Rajion Neal’s 3-yard TD run, Tennessee was up 30-23, matching their biggest lead of the evening.
But once again, Akron would not go away.
The Zips concluded the third quarter with a 16-play drive into the Vols’ red zone that resulted in Robert Stein’s fourth field goal of the evening, this one a 37 yarder.
But once again, to give Tennessee their due credit, the Vols held onto the resolve needed to counterpunch the Zips.
Derrick Brodus’ fourth field goal of the game [that’s right — Derrick Brodus’ fourth field goal of the game] put Tennessee back up by the margin of a TD at 33-26. And, when Akron found themselves two possessions later on their own 7 yard line, the Vols’ nickelback Eric Gordon picked off another Zips’ pass, this time at the Akron 19 yard line.
Tyler Bray’s TD pass to Justin Hunter on the very next play was saluted with a collective exhalation of relief.
Bray’s 24-yard TD pass to walk-on Jacob Carter capped the subsequent Tennessee possession and put the contest into the record book at 47-26.
Many of the numbers in the box score were lopsided. The Vols’ 33 first downs nearly doubled the Zip’s 18. Tennessee’s 633 total yards dwarfed Akron’s 334. Tyler Bray’s 401 yards passing were clearly superior to Dalton Williams’ 229 even though both QBs had the same number of completions (27).
And, yes, the final score was a bit lopsided, too.
But the game wasn’t until deep into the final quarter.
Considering the competition, that is troubling for the Vol Nation as it looks forward to three road trips into the hostility of Athens, Starkville, and Columbia over the next four games, with a visit from Number One Alabama thrown in to heighten the stakes.