Last week the Cincinnati Bearcats turned some heads by leading all FBS programs with a 72-point outburst over Austin Peay. This week, Butch Jones’ Bearcats stepped up in class a bit, taking on Derek Dooley’s University of Tennessee Volunteers in Knoxville. Many were expecting a shootout and for a quarter at least, it appeared that whoever had the ball last would have a shot at winning.
The Bearcat trio of quarterback Nick Collaros, running back Isaiah Pead and receiver D.J. Woods started off strong , playing the Vols even at 14 through the first quarter. The Tennessee defense then settled down, containing Collaros and came up big by stopping Cincinnati on two critical fourth-and-one plays that helped keep the Bearcats out of the end-zone until late in the fourth quarter. All the while, the offensive machine of Tennessee, led by Tyler Bray, just kept right on rolling.
Bray, who wasn’t named the starter until the ninth game of 2010, was already off to an unprecedented start at quarterback in just seven career starts. On Saturday, before 94,207 in attendance at Neyland Stadium, all he did was add to his growing list of accomplishments and his emerging legendary status.
Bray got off to a sizzling start against the Bearcats and never cooled off, completing 21-of-27 passes for 282 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. Bray’s first touchdown strike, of 33 yards, to Justin Hunter came after a perfectly executed on-side kick by Tennessee place-kicker, Michael Palardy. The next two would go to the other half of Tennessee’s dynamic receiving duo, Da’Rick Rogers. Perhaps the most memorable play of the day was the scoring play to Rogers that would put the Vols up 28-14. On a second and 10 play from the Bearcats 15-yard line, Bray threw a laser that split two defenders, squarely hitting Rogers in the numbers. Rogers somehow held on despite losing his helmet after being blasted by both Bearcat defenders. It was just another example of how well everything was going for the Vols in the first half.
As brilliant as Bray was in the first half, he was even more efficient in the second, completing all but one of his 14 attempts and scoring his first Tennessee touchdown on a one-yard quarterback sneak. Bray’s fourth touchdown pass of the day went to Zach Rogers to close out the scoring in the third quarter. The 16-yard pass play put the Vols up 42-17. Palardy would add a late 37-yard field goal as the Vols cruised to a 45-23 victory and improved to 2-0 for the first time since 2006.
Bray’s amazing performance was one for the record books. The final numbers for the Kingsburg, CA native; 34-of-41 for 405 yards, four touchdown passes, one rushing touchdown & no interceptions. Bray joins Peyton Manning in becoming just the second quarterback in UT history to throw for 400 yards in a single game. It was also Bray’s eighth consecutive game with at least two touchdown passes, besting Manning’s previous record of seven. The 83 percent completion rate also surpasses Manning’s 77.5 mark set in 1997 for a Tennessee quarterback with at least 30 completions in a game.
Bray leads all SEC quarterbacks in passing attempts (65), completions (51), completion percentage (78.5), yards (698), touchdowns (7), total offense (342 ypg) and pass efficiency (204.2) while he has yet to throw an interception.
Bray wasn’t the only Vol putting up big offensive numbers or rewriting the UT record books.
Any great quarterback has to have a strong supporting cast and perhaps the top receiving duo in the SEC is on Bray’s side in fellow sophomores Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers. In last week’s opener against Montana, both Rogers and Hunter were over 100 yards in receiving. What would they do for an encore? Do it again, this time establishing a new mark at Tennessee as the only tandem to accomplish the feat in back-to-back weeks. The pair would also add another page in the UT record book by becoming the first receiving teammates to each record 10 receptions in a single game. Rogers tallied 10 catches for 100 yards and two scores while Hunter’s 10 receptions netted 156 yards and a touchdown. Hunter now leads the SEC with 16 receptions and 302 yards. Da’Rick Rogers is second in the conference with 15 receptions and his 200 receiving yards trails only Auburn’s Emory Blake by three yards for second.
Following the game Da’Rick Rogers said, “Bray is playing at a high level right now. His confidence is at an all-time high. You can really see it in practice. He is playing with great poise and playing like a quarterback right now. He is really running things.”
When asked about his three sophomore stars, Bray, Hunter and Rogers, Dooley said, “I’ve never had three of them like this, this young. I hope they keep doing what they are doing. The tests are going to get harder, but it is good to see where they are. That’s two pretty good games by a quarterback and two really good games by those two wideouts. They made a lot of plays.”
Early on in the game, the Vols continued to struggle to get production from the running game. As Bray kept throwing completion after completion to his sure-handed receivers, the offensive line began to open some holes for senior running back, Tauren Poole. Poole would finish off a very productive afternoon with 101 yards on 21 carries and also catch three passes for 30 yards. Poole is on a steady pace to join Vol legend Johnnie Jones as the only Tennessee running backs with back-to-back 1000 yard rushing seasons. The Toccoa, GA native needs to average just over 80 yards per contest in the Vols’ next 10 games to rush into Big Orange history.
The Vols answered alot of questions Saturday afternoon in Knoxville. The much-maligned offensive line performed well, the special teams proved to be an asset not a liability and Tyler Bray continues to silence his few remaining critics.
The Vols are now 2-0 and are looking to start 3-0 for the first time since 2004. Standing in the way is a team from Gainesville, FL. Bray would now like nothing more than to put his name alongside fellow Californian Casey Clausen, who in 2003 was the last Tennessee quarterback to beat the Gators in The Swamp.