Published September 5, 2011 - 9:08pm
NEW: Discuss this topic in the Google+ community for SEC fans.
A severe thunderstorm accompanied by some wicked lightning swept through Knoxville just before kickoff Saturday night, delaying the start of the 2011 season. The hour and a half delay didn’t effect the 94,661 inside Neyland Stadium or Tennessee’s sophomore quarterback, Tyler Bray. Bray seemingly fed off of the electricity and may have even captured some of the lightning in a bottle or in this case, his incredible right arm.
The 19-year old California native looked extrememly loose and appeared to be having a lot of fun in pre-game warm-ups. Combined with Bray’s usual confidence, that apparent looseness translated into yet another outstanding performance and a season-opening win for Derek Dooley’s Volunteers.
Bray wasted little time lighting up the scoreboard as his first pass, set up by a tricky flea-flicker, went to fellow sophomore sensation Da’Rick Rogers. Rogers went the distance of 47 yards, untouched, for a Tennessee touchdown. On the next series, Bray found the other member of his dynamic duo in Justin Hunter for an 81-yard strike as the sophomore receiver pulled away with his outstanding speed to the checkerboard end zone. The long pass to Hunter of 81 yards tied a record for the longest touchdown pass in Tennessee history. Bray would finish the first quarter with 185 passing yards.
Bray’s third and final touchdown of the night came early in the second quarter when freshman running back Marlin Lane was on the receiving end of a 9-yard throw. Lane was impressive, maneuvering his way past defenders to pay-dirt for his first score as a Volunteer.
It was Bray’s seventh consecutive game with at least two touchdown passes, equalling a record set by Peyton Manning in his senior season.
As Bray erased doubts, going back to his 5-for-30 effort in the Vol’s Orange and White spring game, Dooley and Offensive Co-Ordinator Jim Chaney seemed determined on resurrecting the Big Orange running attack. Tennessee would officially rush the ball 46 times if you factor in Bray’s six attempts. Nonetheless, the Tennessee quarterback would finish the night, throwing for 293 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions on the strength of a 17-for-24 passing performance and a completion rate of 71 percent. Tennessee’s early lead was never threatened as the Vols would cruise to a 42-16 victory.
Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter both went over 100 yards in receiving, a feat not accomplished by Tennessee receivers since Lucas Taylor and Austin Rogers were on the receiving end of Erik Ainge’s passes in 2007.
Despite the big-play making ability of Rogers and Hunter, Bray showed signs of a maturing young quarterback, opting for the outlet receiver on several occasions, connecting with the backfield on five passes, including the aforementioned scoring toss to Lane.
Head Coach Derek Dooley said this about Bray’s showing, “Tyler did a good job, he did. He was poised out there. There are still some plays he could have done better. For the most part he managed the game very well.”
In Bray’s six career starts, after being named the starter at Memphis last season, the sophomore has performed at a level that has literally been off the charts. Consider these numbers, 1,839 passing yards, an average of 307 yards per game, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions. No other quarterback in Tennessee history has gotten off to such an amazing start throwing the ball than Tyler Bray. Not Ainge, Martin, Clausen or even Manning had passing numbers that even came close to what Bray has put up thus far. Neither have any of his current SEC peers that include Georgia’s Murray, South Carolina’s Garcia, Florida’s Brantley, Mississippi State’s Relf or any other current conference quarterback with at least six starts. In fact, I can think of no other quarterback in SEC history that has had the early passing statistics that compares with Bray’s.
Gone from Bray’s repatoire was the throat slash, although the camera did catch him waving goodbye as Hunter sprinted toward the goal line. Gone were the interceptions, despite two being nullified on defensive penalties. So for now, it would seem, regardless of who the Vols have played, Bray has silenced his critics for at least another week. But just like the 5-for-30 spring game is in the rearview mirror, so too is Bray’s latest display of greatness. There’s no looking back for an SEC quarterback.
The Vols have a big showdown with Cincinnati approaching this weekend and the annual epic battle with Florida is nearing on the horizon. A win over the Bearcats would give the Vols their first 2-0 start since 2006 and a win over Florida would just be a monumental statement win for Derek Dooley in his bid at restoring the tradition-rich program. If Bray still has his share of skeptics and he most assuredly does, the next two weeks could go a long way in proving them wrong and to begin cementing his legacy as one of the SEC greats.
The storms will come and go, but the Vols hope to continue to catch lightning in a bottle and ride the arm of Tyler Bray.