Staff Photo by Dan Henry UT's Montario Hardesty, 2, breaks a tackle by Ohio's Thad Turner, 12, to run the ball in for the first touchdown of the game during the first quarter of play. The Volunteers played the Bobcats at home Saturday, September 26, 2009, at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.
KNOXVILLE -- A shaky performance Saturday night wasn't the worst news for the Tennessee defense.
The lengthening list of major injuries took that title.
UT held off Ohio, 34-23, but surrendered a season-high 319 passing yards and finished the close game with four true freshmen on the field.
Just five starters from last week's loss at top-ranked Florida finished the last possession against the Bobcats, and the number of injuries wasn't as bad as the names on the list.
Junior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz, a 5-foot-8 former walk-on turned team captain, exited midway through the third quarter with what Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin called a "season-ending ... blown-out knee" injury.
"It makes you sick. Just sick," senior weakside linebacker Rico McCoy said. "It's a tough game, obviously ... but man, that's just not right."
Junior defensive end Chris Walker, a budding Southeastern Conference star, couldn't finish the game with a back injury. Senior defensive tackle Wes Brown's sore knees finally kept him from playing a game.
Junior defensive back Dennis Rogan missed the game with an "administrative" situation, said Kiffin, who added that Rogan would be eligible to return this week.
Strongside linebacker LaMarcus Thompson, another junior, missed the game with a back injury.
"It was good to get the win," Kiffin said. "But it was a tough day for us, as you saw."
Kiffin refused to let the absences be an excuse for what he called a "disappointing" performance.
"We looked like a different defense today than what you're used to seeing," he said. "We've got to make plays. It doesn't matter who's in there. There's no excuses. We've just got to play better."
The players agreed.
"We just didn't get the job done like we should have," said freshman Greg King, who started in Thompson's place.. "We won the game, and that's good, but we're a lot better than that ... and we need to be a lot better than that against the SEC."
The Bobcats tied the score at 7 with a 95-yard kickoff return in the first quarter, but their offense made more than enough plays to keep the Neyland Stadium crowd uneasy.
In fact, UT's defense needed its own score -- Walker's 7-yard interception return in the second quarter -- to keep a 24-20 lead late in the third quarter.
The Bobcats didn't pick on just the new players. Even All-America junior safety Eric Berry got turned around on a deep play-action pass from senior Theo Scott to redshirt freshman tight end Jordan Thompson.
Ohio had 126 yards through the air at halftime against the Rogan-less secondary, and it had 213 after three quarters.
Much of that yardage came in nicks and cuts. Bobcats senior receiver Taylor Price, a Biletnikoff Award watch list member, was one of the few exceptions, with 90 yards on just four catches through three quarters.
Most of the time, however, Ohio spread the field and frustrated the Vols by dinking and dunking on third-down.
"We just couldn't get off the field," said junior cornerback Brent Vinson, whose playing time significantly increased in Rogan's absence. "When you get to third down, especially third-and-long, you've just got to get off the field."
The Bobcats converted four times in nine third-down chances in the third quarter, but a big third-quarter stop kept UT in the lead.
Ohio had a first-and-goal at UT's 4-yard line, but the Vols held on three plays -- two runs and an incomplete fade route -- and forced the Bobcats into an 18-yard field-goal attempt. Matthew Weller was true, but the Vols maintained a slight lead at 24-20 with 6:40 left in the third quarter.
"You know, we don't like giving up any points, but three is better than seven ... I'll say that," senior defensive tackle Dan Williams said. "We kept them out of the end zone in the second half, so that's a good thing."
Those Ohio points mattered just as much minutes later, when a 26-yard pass from Jonathan Crompton to freshman tailback Bryce Brown extended UT's lead to 31-20.
UT held the Bobcats to one third-down conversion in four tries in the third quarter, but another busted coverage led to another big gain early in the fourth. Scott stepped up in the pocket on third-and-8 from his own 23 and fired a dart to wide-open junior wideout LaVon Brazil, who raced 59 yards to the UT 18.
Sophomore cornerback Art Evans, sore knee and all, ran Brazil down to prevent a touchdown.
The Vols were up to the task three plays later, though, forcing Scott to fire incomplete beyond the end zone on a third-and-6 from the 14.
Another Weller field goal, though, pulled the Bobcats within one possession at 31-23 with 10:38 left. It was also the first fourth-quarter points UT surrendered all season.
The Bobcats narrowed the gap without any kind of a rushing threat. They'd gained just 21 yards on 17 runs after Weller's early fourth-quarter boot.
But rushing yards aren't always necessary when you can surpass 300 through the air.
"Got to fix it," McCoy said. "Got to."