KNOXVILLE — Tyler Bray isn’t Superman, after all. Not yet, anyway.
Before throwing an interception late in the second quarter of Saturday’s win at Vanderbilt, Tennessee’s true freshman quarterback completed 12 of 14 passes for 173 yards, two scores and no turnovers.
“I thought we came out early and played well,” coach Derek Dooley said. “I think the first 15 plays of the game, we had five explosive plays, which is really good. I think Tyler, he started out [well].
“The first quarter and a half, we really felt like we were executing the game plan well.”
Before that pickoff, Bray’s career statistics as UT’s No. 1 quarterback included 58 completions in 96 passes for 1,180 yards, 12 touchdowns and one interception. Starting with that pick, he looked like a true freshman again — 4-of-13 for 59 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
“It was just a bad night,” Bray said.
Vanderbilt capitalized on some of the mistakes he got away with against Memphis and Ole Miss.
“I took some shots ... tried to force things down the field,” he said.
That was exactly what Vanderbilt wanted Bray to do. He claimed he knew that going into the game, but he still got impatient or confused a few times and took the bait.
“It’s hard [to stay patient],” he said. “Sometimes you see a few things there that might not be there. Rolling coverages late, they did a great job of disguising that, and it paid off for them. They just did it so late, it’s hard to see. As soon as you snap the ball, you’ve got to take your eyes off the defense, and they were rolling it as I was taking it off the defense.
“It wasn’t tough to throw on them. It was tough to throw it deep. We knew we could hit the underneath routes, which we did I think pretty well, but I tried to force things, tried to go deep too much, and it didn’t pay off.”
Said senior wide receiver Gerald Jones: “He made some mistakes. I hope y’all don’t expect the guy to be perfect. Every quarterback throws an interception. Yeah, he showed signs of youth, but then again, he still made the plays that he normally makes.
“The guy’s not going to be perfect. He’s not Peyton Manning. He’s going to make freshman mistakes sometimes, and he’s going to make bad decisions. It’s just part of the game. All credit goes to Vanderbilt, mixing a lot of stuff up to cause the confusion.”
Fellow senior receiver Denarius Moore agreed with Jones and added that no one on UT’s offense played spectacularly well in Nashville.
“Nobody expected him to be perfect. None of us are perfect,” Moore said. “Teams are going to try to game plan against us, and Vanderbilt did some good things. But he kept his head up and stayed the same person in the huddle, and we made enough plays to win the game.
“We’ll just go back to work this week and work harder at some things, so things won’t be as hard for him this week.”
Dooley said Saturday was a natural step in Bray’s evolution as a Southeastern Conference quarterback.
“This is part of his growth as a quarterback, learning that you’re not going to go out there and rip them for 300 [yards] and 50 points every week,” Dooley said. “He still has a long way to go as it relates to preparation, as it relates to understanding defenses and learning defensive structures and getting offenses into a good play.
“He’s still, to me, a true freshman playing quarterback. But he’s also still making a lot of good plays for us. That’s what we’ve hung our hat on.”
Bray said the most important lesson he learned at Vanderbilt was treating every week and every opponent the same.
He was thankful he learned that lesson with a win, though.
“We like to stay loose,” Bray said. “I just think [last] week we kind of came out too loose and just expected them to roll over, and they didn’t. They played a good game and we just didn’t show up.
“I wouldn’t say we took them too lightly, it’s just we didn’t show up. ... The passing game just wasn’t there.”