Staff Photo by Staff Photo by Angela Lewis / Chattanooga Times Free Press - UT's Denarius Moore carries as Ole Miss' Tony Grimes pursues in Knoxville on Saturday afternoon.
KNOXVILLE — With namesake Robert Neyland finally back watching over his old stadium Saturday afternoon, the University of Tennessee football team turned in a performance that surely produced several smiles from the great general.
The Volunteers scored early and late, as well as offensively and defensively, in a 52-14 Southeastern Conference rout of Ole Miss.
Neyland Stadium’s first game with a 9-foot, 1,500-pound bronze statue of the program’s legendary former leader was one that few UT players, coaches and fans will forget for a while.
“I got chills when I saw that statue,” Vols junior tailback Tauren Poole said. “It’s amazing.”
UT’s Saturday performance wasn’t bad, either. The suddenly-sharp Vols (4-6, 1-5) scored their first SEC win of the season, and the first of Derek Dooley’s career as a head coach.
It came at the expense of the Rebels (4-6, 1-5), who fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter and only briefly battled back to make things interesting.
“We just wanted to swarm them and smother them,” UT senior defensive end Chris Walker. “Once we got that lead, we didn’t want to give them a chance to even peek back and get even a little bit of momentum.
“We just wanted to completely crush them and not give them any hope to come back in the game.”
And that’s exactly what they did.
The Vols, who forced five Ole Miss turnovers and returned two interceptions for touchdowns, put up 52 points despite just one red-zone possession.
“Splash plays, baby,” said sophomore cornerback Prentiss Waggner, whose 10-yard interception-return touchdown early in the third quarter gave UT a 38-14 lead.
The Vols collected several big scoring plays on both sides of the ball. Their first offensive snap, an ill-advised pass into traffic from true freshman quarterback Tyler Bray, bounced into true freshman wide receiver Justin Hunter’s hands. The 6-foot-4 Hunter then ran away from the Rebels for an 80-yard touchdown.
“It was lucky,” the soft-spoken Hunter said of the tipped pass that was intended for senior Gerald Jones landing in his arms.
Hunter was asked if running away from the Rebels was also luck.
“No,” he said with a smile. “That wasn’t luck.”
Hunter, who finished with 114 yards on three receptions, jumped over two Ole Miss defenders and came down with a spectacular, 22-yard score that gave UT a 28-7 lead midway through the second quarter.
Brandon Bolden’s second touchdown run pulled the Rebels within 28-14 with 1:54 left in the first half, but Daniel Lincoln’s 43-yard field goal less than a minute later bumped the Vols’ advantage to 31-14.
Junior tailback Tauren Poole capped UT’s big day with touchdown runs of 36 and 35 yards in the second half.
“They played aggressively. They played fast,” Dooley said of the Vols. “It was just a phenomenal team win.”
Dooley said Saturday wasn’t too surprising because his team’s pre-Ole Miss preparation was the season’s best.
“I felt like we were ready. I did,” he said. “Our players, especially the younger guys, they’re starting to learn how to prepare and stay focused during the week. It was a real commitment by the team of everybody doing a little bit better in everything they do.
“You can see them play with a lot more confidence, and that’s a good thing.”
Jones cited Bray as arguably the biggest factor.
“Everybody sees that he’s brought a spark to this team,” Jones said. “When the defense sees the offense do good, it helps them do good. When the special teams see both of them do good, you know, it just trickles down.
“Everybody, and I mean everybody, can see the spark he’s brought to this team.”
Bray’s second career start was even more impressive, in light of the competition, than his dazzling first start a week earlier at Memphis. The tall Californian completed 18 of 34 passes for 323 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, and he would have topped 400 yards if not for a few misses on wide-open receivers down the field.
Ole Miss’s defensive line is widely regarded as one of the SEC’s best, and Saturday didn’t ruin that reputation. The Rebels sacked Bray three times and hurried him on several other occasions, but the freshman also wiggled out of the pocket multiple times and converted several third-and-longs as a result.
“He was a little ... he got hit a few times, now,” Dooley said. “These guys are good up in the middle. He wasn’t as accurate, but that happens when you’ve got guys coming at you. He missed some throws, but he made some really good throws.
“We scored a lot of points. That’s a nice score.”
Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt didn’t see it the same way.
“It was just a bad day. A bad feeling, a bad showing,” Nutt said after the second-biggest SEC loss of his career, behind only a 63-20 loss in Neyland in 2000 while he was at Arkansas. “The bottom line is just bad. Just a bad, bad day for the Ole Miss Rebels.”
UT has been there, too. Several times.
In one way, that made Saturday sweeter for the Vols.
“Things got pretty bad there for a while,” said Poole, who finished with 107 yards on just 12 carries. “But you can’t quit when you’re playing for something bigger than yourself. When you’re playing for something other than yourself, you can do beyond what you can really do.
“Coach Dooley has kept asking us, ‘What are you playing for?’”
And they’re playing for men like Neyland, Poole said.
“When you put on this helmet, you’re playing for everyone who built this program up and made Tennessee what it is,” Poole said. “That means a lot to me. That’s mean a lot to a lot of us. That’s why we keep playing, and that’s why we played like we played today.
“Now, we can’t stop. We just have to keep playing like this, and we’ll be back where Tennessee should be.”