NASHVILLE — The Vanderbilt Stadium scoreboard showed something worth celebrating for the visiting team, a 24-10 Tennessee win over Vanderbilt.
And because of that, Derek Dooley said his Volunteers would indeed celebrate — “for 24 hours.”
But it was something else the first-year Tennessee coach said inside a cramped and steamy interview room that may say the most about how far these Vols have come the past three weeks.
“We showed zero patience, poor execution and no discipline,” Dooley said. “Other than that, we played a perfect game.”
It doesn’t take a million-dollar coach to know these Vols remain far from perfect. Despite 128 net rushing yards and a game-clinching 28-yard touchdown run by Tauren Poole with 1:22 to play, Dooley remains frustrated with his rushing attack.
“We just stink at running the ball,” he said.
He also was less than thrilled with the Vols’ punt returning, with yet another fumbled punt against the Commodores.
“Guys, I’m sorry,” Dooley said. “I’m embarrassed. We’ve just seen our sixth returner of the year who can’t catch the ball.”
Of the Vols’ game this Saturday that can deliver them a bowl bid following a 2-6 start, Dooley said, “If we play like this against Kentucky, we’ll lose 50-to-nothing.”
But they won’t play like this inside Neyland Stadium against UK. They’ll play to win against a Wildcats team that’s known nothing but losses against them for 25 straight seasons. Logic dictates that this year will bring consecutive win No. 26 and the bowl bid that should come with it.
“It’s going to be like the playoffs in high school,” said Gerald Jones, who caught a team-high six Tyler Bray passes for 80 yards. “Win or go home.”
A fair argument can be made that Tennessee hasn’t so much gotten better as the schedule has become far easier. A lot of teams potentially could go 4-0 against a closing quartet of Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
You could even call it Tennessee’s Cure for all that ails the football program each autumn after a steady diet of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and such.
For if it’s a stretch to make too much of the closing third of the Vols’ schedule, it’s no stretch to call the first eight games UT plays each season among the toughest in the Southeastern Conference, if not the country.
But Dooley rarely made excuses after six losses in his first eight starts. He instead talked of small improvements, an apparent firm believer in the power of positive thinking. Such determination almost beat LSU in Baton Rouge and threw a mighty scare into SEC East beast South Carolina.
Then the Cure arrived and UT took flight behind freshman quarterback Brey. The mess that is Memphis fell 50-14. Ole Miss-erable lost 52-14. Vanderbilt fell 24-10, despite the Vols surrendering three turnovers — including two Bray interceptions — and enduring 75 yards in penalties.
Said Jones of Bray: “He’s not going to be perfect. He’s not Peyton Manning. He’s going to make mistakes.”
But now his teammates are winning despite the mistakes. They’re one win from a bowl bid with one game to play.
“We made enough mistakes today to last a season,” Dooley said as he opened his postgame meeting with the media.
That they won in spite of that is reason for Vols fans to celebrate the turning of the corner for UT football.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6273.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...