NASHVILLE — Da’Rick Rogers nearly made a major mistake in the second quarter and late in the third quarter Thursday night, but the former Calhoun (Ga.) High School All-American more than made up for it.
Rogers, a true freshman wide receiver, caught a 45-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Bray late in the first half to give Tennessee a brief lead over North Carolina.
That big play — which came from a perfectly thrown ball — overshadowed what was nearly a major gaffe earlier in the second quarter.
Rogers, who emerged late this season as a dangerous kick returner, fumbled while attempting to stretch the ball forward around the 30-yard line with 10:13 left in the first half. Sophomore linebacker Nigel Mitchell-Thornton pounced on the ball to keep possession.
Rogers also fumbled an end around late in the third quarter, but Vols senior receiver Denarius Moore recovered it.
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Rogers came to UT as one of the nation’s most prized prospects, but typical first-year struggles with maturing and learning the playbook delayed his impact until late in the season.
Rogers first made his mark this season running end arounds, gaining 124 yards on just 14 carries — a healthy 8.9-yard average. He entered Thursday with 122 receiving yards on just 10 catches, including a 22-yard touchdown in the blowout win at Memphis. He also averaged 25.9 yards per kick return heading into Thursday, including a 78-yarder — UT’s longest since 2007 — to open the win over Kentucky.
North Carolina collected 207 yards of offense on 32 plays in the first half. The Tar Heels had touchdown plays of 58 and 39 yards, but their other 30 plays combined for a total of just 110 yards.
UT had 180 first-half yards on 39 plays, but just 106 yards on 37 plays aside from its 29- and 45-yard scores.
The Vols held a comfortable time of possession lead in the first half — 16:03 to 13:57 — despite having one fewer third-down conversions than North Carolina at the break. UT was 3-for-9 at that point, and the Heels were 4-for-9.
Cunningham comes back
UT senior Chad Cunningham returned to punt Thursday night after missing the regular-season finale against Kentucky with a hand injury. He wasn’t sharp early, sending his first two punts just 34 and 38 yards and booting his third — a cleanly hit 52-yarder — into the end zone. His final punt of the first half was much better, as he hit a 51-yarder with plenty of hang time, allowing the Heels little room for a short return.
Cunningham also had a 42-yard punted downed at the 6-yard line late in the third quarter.
This and that
Junior defensive tackle Malik Jackson’s play has been a big part of the Vols’ late-season surge, but his discipline on the field has been a problem. He was flagged for another personal foul in Thursday’s second half, this one for a perceived shot at UNC quarterback Tyler Yates’ head. ...
North Carolina senior safety Deunta Williams, a highly rated NFL prospect, left the game on a stretcher with 5:32 left in the first quarter after suffering a fractured right fibula. The Heels suffered another gruesome injury in the third quarter, when sophomore defensive end Donte Paige-Moss took a helmet to his unprotected face. Paige-Moss stayed on the ground for several minutes before walking off with help from the training staff. ...
UT junior linebacker Daryl Vereen, a former tailback and safety, continued his improved, late-season play with a big sack late in the second quarter. UNC was forced to punt a few plays later. ...
North Carolina, as the visiting team, called heads on the opening toss and won, bringing UT’s final coin-toss mark this season to 2-11.
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesruckerCTFP or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.