MEMPHIS — Late in the first half Saturday night at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Tennessee true freshman quarterback Tyler Bray asked senior wide receiver Gerald Jones a simple question.
“Have you caught a touchdown yet?” Bray asked.
Jones shook his head. He hadn’t.
“We’re going to get you one,” the quarterback responded.
The next ball Bray threw was a 9-yard touchdown pass to Jones.
It was that kind of a starting debut for Bray. The tall, thin California kid threw five touchdown passes — all in the first half — and left long before the fourth quarter of a 50-14 rout of miserable Memphis.
“Perspective” was a word tossed around frequently inside and just outside the UT locker room. Memphis (1-8) is widely regarded as one of the worst teams in major college football.
Still, there were plenty of reasons for the Volunteers (3-6) to sing and smile.
By halftime, Bray had tied a UT record for non-overtime games with the five scoring passes. And he threw them to five teammates. And he surpassed 300 yards before heading to the locker room for the break.
It was a dazzling display, albeit against one of the nation’s statistically worst defenses.
Bray finished 19-of-33 through the air for 325 yards. He was 17-of-28 for 308 yards at halftime, and at least three incompletions were clear drops.
“I don’t want to speak too soon, but I probably haven’t played with a quarterback who can throw the ball like he has. Ever,” Jones said. “The guy can throw it. That’s what he does. I wish I could start my career over to play with him for four years, because he could make me better. But, hey, I don’t, so good luck to the guys who do.
“I just ... I just ... I don’t think I’ve ever played with a quarterback like this.”
An orange-partisan crowd was officially announced at 39,742, the smallest to watch a UT game since a 2008 win at Vanderbilt. And Saturday night’s actual attendance seemed significantly less than that.
Those who stayed saw a show, though. And those who wore orange left feeling good after seeing their Vols suffer through a winless October.
“We outmatched them, and we did what we should do. That was good,” coach Derek Dooley said. “It’s been a while since we got a win, so it was nice to sing in the locker room.”
The Tigers took an early lead on Ryan Williams’ 4-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Marcus Rucker midway through first quarter. Bray responded with a 9-yard, third-and-goal touchdown pass to junior tailback Tauren Poole, but Memphis kept a 7-6 lead when freshman Michael Palardy missed the extra -point try.
UT took its first lead late in the first quarter, when true freshman wide receiver Justin Hunter caught a perfectly thrown 42-yard touchdown pass from Bray. Palardy made that extra point, giving the Vols a 13-7 lead with 0:55 left in the opening quarter.
The Vols scored 50 consecutive points before Rucker caught a second touchdown pass in the final minutes against UT’s reserves.
“I was just out there trying to have as much fun as possible,” said Bray, adding that he was “not at all” nervous. “It was just like last week, almost backyard-ball-type ball. Just try to get it out there to the playmakers.”
The only thing Bray struggled to do Saturday night was speak.
“I actually had a sore throat since the beginning of the game, and the yelling didn’t help,” he said. “I’ve been taking cough drops and some spray stuff the whole game.”
Redshirt freshman cornerback Eric Gordon intercepted Williams on the first play after UT took the lead, and the Vols’ advantage swelled to 16-7 on Palardy’s 24-yard field goal with 14:43 left in the second quarter.
“Things kind of unfolded from there,” first-year Memphis coach Larry Porter said.
And they unfolded quite quickly.
Bray’s third touchdown, a 14-yarder to senior wide receiver Denarius Moore, extended UT’s lead to 23-7. His fourth, a 22-yarder to freshman wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers from Calhoun (Ga.) High School, made it 30-7. The 9-yard called shot to Jones made it 37-7.
Palardy’s 32-yard field goal ended the first-half scoring onslaught with 0:20 to go.
The Vols racked up 398 yards of total offense by the break, while 62 of Memphis’ 117 first-half yards came on its touchdown drive. Aside from that, the Tigers had just 55 yards on 22 plays in the first two periods.
“When we calmed down, we did what we were supposed to do,” said Moore, who topped the century mark for a second consecutive week with 103 yards on six catches. “[Bray] is getting more comfortable back there, so he’s progressing real good, and we’re proud of him for it.”
The second half had a few highlights, too.
A long interception return by junior defensive lineman Malik Jackson set up Poole’s 21-yard touchdown run on the next play, with 5:49 left in the third quarter. That was the Vols’ third touchdown drive of the game that took three plays or less, and Poole’s score put him past 100 rushing yards and 150 all-purpose yards on the night.
“I feel pretty good,” Poole said. “I feel like I came out and did the best I could do to help us win. That was my biggest thing, was bouncing back from a terrible game by me, [where] I let them down.
“Hopefully when I see the film, I did a lot better.”
Palardy added a third field goal, this one from 33 yards, to increase UT’s lead to 50-7 with 2:21 left in the third quarter.
Junior Matt Simms, who started at quarterback in the Vols’ first eight games, checked in for the first time late in the third quarter and finished 3-of-5 for 54 yards.
The Vols return to Neyland Stadium this Saturday for a noon game against Ole Miss (4-5, 1-4 SEC), which beat Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday.
“Well, that doesn’t mean we thought we were going to win, but we’re a more talented football than they are,” Dooley said of the Tigers. “Now we have to look ahead and get back in the SEC and try to get us a win.”