Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press/ Tennessee's place kicker Daniel Lincoln (26) signals his success for three points as Anthony Anderson (36) breaks into smiles after the Vols first drive. Oregon defensive tackle Brandon Bair (88) watches from his knees early in the first quarter.
KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee football Volunteers followed the underdog script nearly perfectly for nearly half of Saturday’s game against seventh-ranked Oregon.
But in their present shape, they needed to follow that script perfectly for 60 minutes to beat a Pac-10 powerhouse like the Ducks. And they definitely didn’t do that.
Oregon scored the final 45 points of its 48-13 win.
As the Ducks downed the ball near midfield in the final minute, the green and yellow contingent was nearly all that remained of a once-raucous, 102,035 crowd in Neyland Stadium.
The fast-paced Ducks (2-0) took a toll on the thin Vols (1-1).
“I think the tempo they were going at kind of got to us, and they kind of wore us down, to be honest,” Vols senior defensive end Chris Walker said. “We missed some tackles, and we made some mistakes that we normally don’t make. And when you’re playing a good team, the No. 7-ranked team in the country, you can’t make any mistakes. You have to be flawless.
“But we made some mistakes, and they capitalized on them.”
UT led 13-3 late in the first half, and Neyland stayed noisy even after a 70-minute weather delay midway through the opening quarter.
Lightning sent the Vols and Ducks to their locker rooms, and a heavy downpour kept them there. The delay started at 7:20 p.m. Players were given a 10-minute warmup after coming back on the field, and the game resumed at 8:30.
A Vols team hadn’t been through a weather delay since a home win over Marshall on Sept. 23, 2006. That game’s start was delayed. UT hadn’t been through a midgame weather delay since a win at Arkansas on Sept. 8, 2001.
The Vols took an early 6-0 lead on two Daniel Lincoln field goals before Oregon took an offensive snap — thanks to a fumbled kickoff return UT recovered at the Ducks’ 43-yard line.
Oregon scored first after the delay, slicing the Vols’ lead in half on a 37-yard field goal from Rob Beard.
UT responded quickly, though. After two big Tauren Poole runs and a spectacular 31-yard catch from freshman receiver Justin Hunter, Poole plowed in from 1 yard to give the Vols a 13-3 advantage with 14:21 left in the first half.
“Things were looking good at that point,” Poole said. “But you have to finish.”
Oregon added a second field goal and a 27-yard touchdown strike from Darron Thomas to tight end David Paulson in the final three minutes of the half. Paulson’s score and the ensuing extra point tied the score at 13 just before the break.
The Vols controlled the ball for nearly 17 minutes in the first half, gaining 168 yards on 23 runs. Poole led the way with 140 yards on 15 first-half carries.
Oregon, typically one of the nation’s most potent rushing attacks, was grounded with 68 yards on 17 carries in the first half. Thomas kept the Ducks close with 123 passing yards in the first two quarters. He also led his team in rushing at that point with 34 yards on seven attempts.
“I was proud of how we came out and competed early in the game,” UT coach Derek Dooley said. “Then we screwed up the last three minutes of the half in all phases. We were sitting there in pretty good command of the game ... and we go in at halftime tied, which was fine. But we didn’t have a good look in our eye at halftime.”
And that look got progressively worse.
Oregon sophomore tailback LaMichael James, surprisingly slowed in the first half, burst loose for a 72-yard touchdown run that gave the Ducks a 20-13 lead with 10:10 left in the third quarter.
The Ducks extended that lead to 27-13 moments later on the game’s defining moment. Cornerback Cliff Harris stepped in front of a Matt Simms pass — one dangerously thrown across the field off his back foot — and returned it 76 yards to the end zone.
“I was really disappointed from them on with how competed,” Dooley said. “You would have thought we were down 40.”
They soon very nearly were.
“Because we folded in the tent,” senior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz said.
Oregon scored three more touchdowns in the third quarter — a 29-yard pass from Thomas to tight end Lavasier Tuinei, an 80-yard punt return from tailback Kenjon Barner and a 2-yard run from reserve tailback Remene Alston Jr. with 3:54 left.
The punt return bothered Dooley, but the main focus of his frustration never strayed from his team’s reaction to Simms’ interception.
Simms blamed himself, saying his error “killed us in a lot of ways.”
Dooley saw it differently.
The interception annoyed the coach. The reaction infuriated him.
Dooley said he’d watch the video to see if he could find one Vol playing hard after that mistake.
“I don’t think I’ll see one,” he said.
And the coach wasn’t quite done.
“I’ve been saying it for eight months; I don’t really care how we are until we hit some bad adversity,” Dooley said. “We hit some bad adversity in the third quarter, and we didn’t handle it well. We didn’t do anything well after that ... and you play a good team, and you do that, and you’re going to get embarrassed. And that’s what happened.
“We have to learn to compete through adversity, and we’re not there yet.
The Vols don’t have much time to get there before another big game. They’ll host another one of the nation’s fastest teams — eighth-ranked Florida (2-0) — this Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.
Lovely weather for DucksStaff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press/ Tennessee fans, from left, Allyn Hood, Tara Turner and Marcy Taylor enjoy pregame fun next to the Vols tunnel on Saturday.