Despite quick pick, Bray era may be beginning at Tennessee

COLUMBIA, S.C. - So Saturday afternoon's third quarter began between Tennessee and South Carolina, and Volunteers quarterback Matt Simms took exactly 51 seconds to give the ball back to the Gamecocks when he fumbled while being sacked for the third time.

Handed this early Halloween treat, South Carolina turned a 10-10 halftime tie into a 17-10 advantage in less than two minutes, which prompted UT coach Derek Dooley to bench the junior Simms in favor of true freshman Tyler Bray.

Trouble is, Bray threw the Vols in a 24-10 hole two plays later when he tossed an interception to Gamecocks defensive end Devin Taylor, who returned it 20 yards for a touchdown.

An hour later Dooley sat in a cramped, windowless interview room beneath Williams-Brice Stadium and said of that six-point interception: "Tyler had never seen that [defensive stunt] before. He's a freshman."

But up in the press box, as Taylor crossed the goal line I turned to Wes Rucker, our UT beat writer, and said, "Well, I guess Simms is back at quarterback for the next series."

And my wife wonders why Dooley is making nearly $1.8 million more a year than me. Because not only did Bray return to the field immediately following that rookie mistake, but he delivered two of the three prettiest touchdowns launched by a Vols quarterback all season - Simms' winning TD throw to Denarius Moore against UAB in double-overtime being the other.

Bray's stunning strikes, thrown with laser accuracy at warp speed, didn't ultimately save the Big Orange in this 38-24 defeat. But they did briefly tie the game at 24. More important, they gave Dooley a tangible reason to bench Simms in favor of a kid who was dominating California high school ball this time last year.

"I don't want to get into quarterback [discussion] again," Dooley said. "But [Bray] did some good things."

The best thing Bray did, according to wide receiver Gerald Jones - who caught one of the kid's touchdowns - was simply to "play backyard football. He's just throwing it deep. He's a freshman. He doesn't really know what's going on."

Maybe he does and maybe he doesn't. But he knew enough to shake up the No. 17 Gamecocks. He knew enough to walk up to his teammates after the intermission and say, "Let's go. It's time to get back in this ballgame."

Said Jones: "Tyler's a funny guy. He's a little more loose [than Simms]."

Added Bray: "I was laughing in the huddle. I wanted everybody to relax. I was just trying to get the job done."

Simms would argue that he was getting the job done pretty well early on. He threw a second-quarter touchdown pass to tight end Luke Stocker to tie the game at 10. He completed 10 of 13 passes for 153 yards with zero interceptions.

But he also lost two fumbles, then compounded the problem by saying - whether he meant to take a shot at Bray or not - "It wasn't like I dropped back and threw it to the other team."

Another Simms offering: "If you get hit a lot (translation: my line couldn't protect me from Charlie Brown and Linus), sometimes the ball comes out. Other than that, I thought I played really well. I didn't turn the ball over, besides those [two times I turned it over]."

At least Jones isn't likely to describe Simms as funny and loose.

How Dooley described his plans for Simms and Bray at game's beginning will no doubt strike at least a few Volniacs as funny strange, though his candor is refreshing.

"I didn't know what I was going to do," the coach explained. "I was just going to let the game play out. And Matt did some good things early. But you can't put the ball on the ground."

Now the ball appears about to be put in Bray's hands, much as it was once handed to Peyton Manning and Casey Clausen down the stretch of their freshman seasons, the Vols winning their final five games during Peyton's first year and six straight with Clausen at the controls.

Given that 2-6 Tennessee's final four regular-season games are against Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky, there's little reason to believe Bray can't have a similar run of success.

As he was leaving the stadium late Saturday afternoon, Moore said of the rookie's performance, "I think it's pretty rare for a freshman."

As for Simms, if Dooley insists on continuing his shtick of linking his Vols to historical moments, he might want to compare Simms' performance against USC to Custer's Last Stand.