Tennessee Stat Book
For a battered football team, homecoming played out exactly as traditionally intended Saturday night.
Tennessee found a safe port in a stormy season, a 24-0 victory over Middle Tennessee State.
After being beaten up by a series of SEC heavyweights the past four weeks, the Vols proved they can still handle the likes of a Sun Belt Conference also-ran.
"When you lose and keep losing, it pulls on your spirit,'' said UT coach Derek Dooley. "You start questioning everything and you doubt everything.
"Nothing heals like a good win.''
Nothing heals like a non-conference game. The Vols (4-5) completed the non-SEC portion of the schedule without a blemish.
Now, winless in the SEC, they plunge back into league play at Arkansas.
At least freshman quarterback Justin Worley will have a positive experience under his belt — and in his head.
Worley's second start was a positive step. He found Middle's defense considerably less intimidating than South Carolina's a week ago, completing 23 of 32 passed for 291 yards.
His highlight throw was a 47-yard touchdown strike to Da'Rick Rogers.
"He made a lot of good decisions and ran the offense well,'' Dooley said. "I'm really proud of him.
"He played like the guy we signed.''
Tauren Poole got the other two touchdowns, on runs of 1 and 7 yards.
Those were Poole's only highlights. He netted 13 rushing yards as the running game continued to struggle through three quarters.
Walk-on Derrick Brodus, who planned to watch the game on TV, answered an emergency summons to the stadium to fill in for injured Michael Palardy. Brodus, a freshman from Alcoa, chipped in a 21-yard field goal, hit three extra points and even kicked off.
A crowd announced — with great exaggeration — at 88,211, was thinned out to the diehards in the fourth quarter.
It was the second shutout of the Derek Dooley era, the other being a 50-0 win over UT Martin to open the 2010 season.
The Vols had not shut out an FBS opponent since a 48-0 win over Vanderbilt in 2003.
"When you pitch a shutout in today's game,'' said Dooley. "I don't care who you're playing.
"These guys were averaging over 400 yards and 30 points.''
Middle (2-6) was averaging precisely 462 yards and 29.8 points. The Blue Raiders still haven't scored a touchdown in two games against Tennessee.
All the Vols' scoring came in the first half. Tennessee threatened only once in the second half, turning the ball over on downs at the MTSU 17 with 1:26 to play.
Good thing Worley was on his game because the Vols still couldn't run the ball with any authority for most of the night.
They tacked on 48 of their 120 rushing yards in the fourth quarter. The most effective ploy was Marlin Lane lining up in a wildcat formation for a direct snap.
"We're searching,'' said Dooley. "We're trying to generate some run yards.''
Walk-on Jaron Toney generated the most yards, 52 on 19 carries in his first significant action.
The defense not only pitched a shutout, it pitched in three turnovers.
"You can't lose the turnover battle in games like this,'' said MTSU coach Rick Stockstill, after losing it 3-0.
A pair of first-half interceptions by Austin Johnson and Eric Gordon created field position for 10 Tennessee points.
The third, a fumble recovery by Dontavis Sapp in the fourth quarter, thwarted the Blue Raiders' most promising drive.
Tennessee outgained MTSU, 411 yards to 230, and dominated time of possession with 39:14 to 20:46.
Aside from the lack of a running game, the first half could not have gone much smoother for the Vols.
After an exchange of punts, Johnson snatched his second interception in three games, this one off MTSU quarterback Logan Kilgore. His 22-yard return gave the offense a virtual freebie — first-and-goal at the 7.
Poole cracked it in from the 1 and Tennessee had all the points it would need.
That didn't seem likely at the time, however.
The Vols' ensuing drive required more effort to cover 89 yards.
Toney, an Alcoa High School product, got a tough yard on third-and-1 to keep the drive alive, then Worley hit Rogers in stride for a 47-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
There was no answer from Middle's offense, so the Vols assembled an even more impressive drive: 15 plays for 86 yards.
Poole got the score on a 7-yard run, spinning away from a Middle tackler at the 2.
Another Blue Raider turnover gave UT a chance to add a field goal.
Jeff Murphy came on at quarterback for the ineffective Kilgore but his fate was no better.
Eric Gordon intercepted Murphy with 40 seconds left in the half. Worley completed four passes but the Vols had to use their final timeout to get the field-goal unit on the field.
Brodus hit from 21 yards as time expired.
And 24-0 was where it stayed.
"In the second half,'' Dooley said, "we tried to shrink the game and run the ball a little better.
"I wish we could have gotten some more points, but we did what we needed to do win the game and that's what matters.''
The Vols hadn't been able to say that for a long time.