Game-day recap: Tennessee-Ole Miss
Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt on loss to Tennessee
Tennessee Stat Book
After a while Saturday afternoon the question rumbling around Neyland Stadium changed from one thing to another.
At the homecoming kickoff against Ole Miss it was whether Tennessee could find a way to pull out its first SEC win of the season?
It ended up being this:
Where did that come from?
The Vols led 21-0 after a quarter, 31-14 at the half. But the only numbers that matter, the ones at the end, were even more startling - 52-14.
"It was just a phenomenal team win,'' said UT coach Derek Dooley after his first SEC victory and first back-to-back wins.
"I felt like we were ready.''
But that ready?
The Vols won the turnover battle five-zip, won the yardage battle 441-295 and scored their most points in a non-overtime SEC game since 2003.
"Man,'' said senior defensive end Chris Walker, "I knew we had it in us.
"We've showed spurts on defense that were good, spurts on offense and spurts on special teams. Today was our first complete game as a team.''
The Vols (4-6, 1-5 SEC) kept their dream of bowl eligibility alive. They still have Vanderbilt, next Saturday in Nashville, and Kentucky, at home, left.
Tyler Bray threw three touchdown passes in his second start, two to Justin Hunter and one to Denarius Moore.
Ole Miss quarterback Jeremiah Masoli also threw two touchdown passes - both to Tennessee cornerbacks.
Eric Gordon's 46-yard interception return gave the Vols the surprising 21-0 lead still in the first quarter.
Prentiss Waggner's third interception-return score of the season covered only 10 yards but the timing couldn't have been better.
The Vols went into the halftime break with a 31-14 lead but knew Ole Miss (4-6, 1-5) had explosive potential.
"When we went in the locker room, we talked about finishing strong,'' said Waggner, "so I had it in my mind I was going to make a big play.''
His big play afforded the Vols a 38-14 lead.
Tauren Poole, seldom seen in the first half when Tennessee couldn't run the ball, finished up with touchdown runs of 36 yards in the third quarter and 35 in the fourth.
"I never in a million days thought it would be 52-14,'' said Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt.
"That's what turnovers and mistakes do.''
Tennessee intercepted four passes and recovered a fumble.
"I say it every week,'' said Dooley. "That's the key, the turnovers. It always is.
"If you're plus-five in turnovers, you're probably going to win the game.''
An omen that Tennessee might win the game came on the Vols' first offensive snap.
After stopping Ole Miss' opening drive, the Vols took over at their 20.
Bray dropped back and fired a pass intended for Gerald Jones, but Ole Miss linebacker Jonatahan Cornell deflected it into the air.
Hunter, the tall and speedy freshman, was in the right place at the right time to pluck the ball out of the air, break a tackle and race 80 yards for a touchdown.
Jones admitted he went from, "Oh, God … to … Oh, good!''
"He broke a tackle,'' said Jones, "and there's nobody there.
"I tried to keep up with him but he's like, what's that horse's name, Zenyatta, covering four yards a step.''
Bray's second TD pass was a 17-yarder to Moore.
Three plays later, Gordon snatched a Masoli pass and was on his way to the checkerboard for a 21-0 lead.
"I'm not gonna lie,'' said Jones. "I was a little surprised how well we were playing.
"Not surprised, like I didn't think we could do it. I was surprised it was actually happening. And good things kept happening for us.''
The only good things for Ole Miss came in the second quarter, touchdown runs of 17 and 2 yards by Brandon Bolden.
But in between Bolden's scores Tennessee answered with an 11-play scoring drive that ended with an acrobatic 22-yard TD catch by Hunter between two Ole Miss defenders.
Bray finished 18-of-34 passing for 323 yards.
In his two games as a starter, he's passed for 648 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions.
And the Vols have won both games by a combined 102-28.
Poole had only 7 net rushing yards at halftime but warmed up to finish at 107.
Masoli was only 7-of-18 for 80 yards passing for Ole Miss and was intercepted three times. Nathan Stanley came on in relief and was picked off by Anthony Anderson.
All in all, it was a dominating performance by Tennessee, following another dominating performance last week against Memphis.
"That's what you want,'' said Dooley, "to get better and better and better.
"We handled adversity. We were two-and-six there, coming off two blowouts.
"Now we'll see if we can handle two good games.''
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-342-6276. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.