KNOXVILLE — If you’re one of those nattering nabobs of negativism determined to find fault with the Tennessee Volunteers’ football season opener against Montana, you could always point to Saturday night’s rushing total, which was less than 3 yards a carry — and that included Tauren Poole’s 4.1 yards a tote.
Throw in the safety that Montana added by stuffing Poole in the end zone early in the third quarter and you begin to wonder if the UT offensive line hasn’t become as stationary as the Golden Corral buffet tables they must frequent to average 315 pounds per player from tackle to tackle.
“We were hoping to run the ball a little better,” said coach Derek Dooley, who also said, “We’ve got a lot of work to do between week one and week two if we’re going to be competitive.”
Sooner or later, if they don’t run the ball better, the Big Orange could be in big trouble against the LSUs, Alabamas and South Carolinas that make up so much of their remaining 12 games.
But every good football program also knows you must pick your poison when you’re facing a superior foe, which the Grizzlies were doing Saturday night.
Montana didn’t get to be the winningest Division I team in the country over the last decade only because it plays at the level formerly known as I-AA. The Grizzlies got there by knowing you must take away one disadvantage — running, passing, special teams, penalties, the halftime show — then hope your opponent is just a wee bit off in everything else.
So Montana chose to stop the run, which left UT quarterback Tyler Bray to do what he arguably does better than any Big Orange signal-caller since Peyton Manning: pass the opponent silly.
Bray may be yet to prove his mettle against a UT foe of equal or superior talent. Montana might give Vanderbilt or Kentucky a tough game, but it’s not yet ready for an SEC heavyweight, or, in this case, middleweight.
So after being sacked for a 10-yard loss on the third play of the game, Bray got serious against the Griz. His next snap resulted in a 47-yard TD strike to Da’Rick Rogers. He connected with Justin Hunter for an 81-yard score — the ninth longest scoring pass in UT history — the possession after that.
Then came a pedestrian 9-yard strike to freshman Marlin Lane early in the second period to make it 21-0 in favor of the home team.
Given that the hour was well after 8 p.m. at that point and this contest already had been delayed more than 90 minutes by a thunderstorm, Bray could have earned a standing ovation from the crowd of 94,661 for doing nothing more than allowing them to get home in time to avoid an extra trip to the ATM to pay the babysitter.
But the real news is that Bray tied Manning’s record of throwing for at least two touchdowns in seven straight contests, dating back to the two TDs he threw against South Carolina last year in a non-starting role.
The real news is that the receiving corps of Hunter, Rogers and Co. just might be the equal of any opponent on UT’s schedule.
Or as Dooley noted, “We’ve got some guys who can make big plays on the perimeter, and they showed it.”
Dooley again showed he has a remarkable ability to keep things both serious and light, as witness the orange pants he wore with a white shirt and black shoes.
My friend Nick joked later that, “If he’d just worn a white shoes and belt, he could passed for a senior citizen leaving the Early Bird special at Denny’s to get in a few holes on the par 3.”
As if on cue, Dooley said, “Everybody else wanted that, but my wife intervened. There are some limits.”
Montana coach Robin Pflugrad spent one evening watching Bray torch his junior-senior defense for 293 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions and said he believes there are no limits on how far he can go.
“He is an outstanding quarterback,” he said. “He will probably go on to make a living at it.”
You can argue about the California Kid’s maturity at times. You can wince each time that No. 2 pencil frame of his is busted during an opponent’s blitz. And the pigskin purists out there will surely cling to the notion that no great team relies on passing only to score.
But the more Bray finds his receivers, the more the running game will open up. Of that much Dooley must be certain.
“They showed you a little taste of what they can do,” the coach said. “We’ve got to get them in a position to catch a lot of balls.”
As long as Bray keeps throwing them, that may be the least of the Vols’ worries the rest of the way.
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 ...