KNOXVILLE — The menu provided one more cupcake before the sweets disappear for a while.
Yet Tennessee had trouble gobbling up the final dessert before the meaty part of its schedule.
The sluggish Volunteers spent Saturday night at Neyland Stadium in a four-quarter dogfight with the Mid-American Conference's Akron Zips before scoring 17 fourth-quarter points to pull away for a 47-26 win.
"It was a tough game, and I knew that it would be," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "We spotted them 10 points with turnovers, but I was real proud of the team in the second half."
Coming off a disappointing home loss to rival Florida the week before, the Vols broke a surprising 23-all tie on quarterback Tyler Bray's swing pass to tailback Rajion Neal with 6:47 remaining in the third quarter and rattled off 17 unanswered fourth-quarter points to put away the pesky Zips.
After Florida blitzed the Vols 27-6 in the second half last week, Dooley called Tennessee's second-half performance against Akron a "good step."
"The score at halftime is really the score that never matters," safety Byron Moore said. "It's a four-quarter game. We just keep our composure and just try to play 60 minutes as best as we can."
The Vols missed two chances to go up by two scores until capitalizing on a third try after Eric Gordon's interception on a pass that was tipped by an Akron receiver. Bray threw for 401 yards and four touchdowns, and the Vols also ran for 232 yards in a 633-yard night. Yet they kicked four field goals and had a couple of drives inside Akron's 10-yard line end in 3-pointers.
"I think we had a lot of mistakes on the first half," said receiver Justin Hunter, who finished with 115 yards and a touchdown on eight catches. "We didn't capitalize in the red zone. We've just got to take advantage when we're down there.
"That what's we focused on this week, just finishing the whole game."
After Bray hit Hunter for a 19-yard strike to put the Vols up 14, the junior quarterback hit a wide-open Jacob Carter on a 24-yard pass with 6:34 remaining to finish the scoring.
Up to that point, however, Tennessee made nothing look easy. It held a commanding 175-39 advantage in total yardage after the first quarter, but two turnovers led directly to Akron's 10 points. Bray was pressured into a poor throw on the game's third play, and cornerback Avis Commack, a Florida State transfer, raced 44 yards to give the Zips a stunning 7-0 lead. Neal's fumble at the Vols' 30 set up Robert Stein's tying field goal.
While the Vols were bending and not breaking defensively during the second quarter, the offense failed to put away the Zips. Derrick Brodus kicked three field goals on its five first-half red-zone possessions, and Akron stopped the Vols on a fourth-and-1 at the Zips' 30 in the second quarter. One drive stalled after Patterson's 5-yard loss on a reverse, and Bray's misfire to Rogers forced another Brodus kick, and incompletions on two consecutive pass plays from the Akron thwarted other touchdown opportunities inside Akron's 10.
"We just rallied together and knew we had to pick it up," Bray said. "I missed a bunch of throws, we could have had some scores and we just couldn't finish drives. We were putting together drives and just couldn't finish."
After holding the ball for just 3:45 in the first quarter, Akron found the rhythm in its fast-paced, quick-passing attack. The Zips, five-touchdown underdogs who hadn't beaten a Bowl Subdivision team since the 2010 season finale against Buffalo, ran up 163 yards of offense and 13 points in the second quarter.
After two Stein field goals, tailback Quentin Hines ran 70 yards untouched through the heart of the Vols' defense to give Akron and first-year and former Auburn coach Terry Bowden a 23-20 lead two minutes before halftime. That generated some boos from the quiet, frustrated announced crowd of 81, 719.
"We just screwed it up," Dooley said. "We slanted the line and the 'backers didn't adjust. We were man free in the secondary and couldn't rally to get him down.
"That was the bad play of the game there."
Dooley said he was pleased with the rest of the game, especially the second half.
"What I'm really proud of is how we had so many things go wrong in the game and we came out and dominated the second half," the coach said. "Everybody has been beating this team up for the second half [last week]. We just had one really bad stretch.
"I keep telling the team, 'It's not who you are — it's what you did.' We screwed it up, but that doesn't mean it's who you are. They were really calm at halftime; there wasn't any panic."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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