KNOXVILLE — University of Tennessee sophomore running back Ty Chandler buried the University of Texas at El Paso's chances at an upset Saturday at Neyland Stadium when he ran 81 yards on the first play of the second half, putting the Volunteers up by 17 points on their way to a 24-0 victory.
"And it's a good thing he did," Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said, "because I'm not sure that we wouldn't have gotten another penalty before we got into the end zone, so I'm glad he got to the end zone."
The Vols (2-1) pitched a shutout in their final game before opening Southeastern Conference play with a visit from Florida next Saturday night, but their performance against the Miners left Pruitt assessing his team glumly.
Tennessee entered the week as one of three teams in the nation yet to commit a turnover through two games. It left with two turnovers to its name. The Vols entered with the fewest penalty yards in the SEC (67) and left having nearly matched that total in a single afternoon, with eight penalties for 65 yards against UTEP.
While Tennessee's defense held its opponent to fewer than 100 passing yards for a second straight week after allowing more than 400 in a season-opening loss to West Virginia, it was hard to tell if the Vols have improved drastically or if their competition simply was overwhelmed.
UTEP (0-3) entered on a 14-game losing streak but trailed the Vols just 3-0 at the end of the first quarter and 10-0 at halftime as a sun-baked crowd of 87,074 watched.
Twelve of the Miners' 13 possessions ended with punts. The exception came when they allowed the clock to run out at the end of the first half.
"We had no turnovers on defense, and it's going to be hard to win in the SEC moving forward if we're not creating any turnovers," Pruitt said. "We're going to have to be a team that creates a bunch of turnovers. There are balls hitting us in the head, in the hands, and we're going to have to find guys that can play the ball and finish on the ball and then get the ball off of the quarterback and the runners."
Tennessee's two turnovers afforded UTEP the opportunity to keep the game close.
Freshman running back Jeremy Banks fumbled while reaching for the goal line with 13:31 left in the second quarter and Tennessee leading 3-0. Officials reviewed the play, but the call stood, giving the Miners the ball on the UTEP 2-yard line with a dose of momentum.
Tennessee's defense forced a punt, leading to the Vols' first touchdown of the game. With Tennessee leading 10-0 a few minutes later, the Vols forced another three-and-out, but Marquez Callaway muffed the punt and UTEP's T.K. Powell fell on the football in Tennessee territory.
Pruitt identified the miscues and pattern of poor execution as the symptoms of a poor week of practice.
"Most places that I've been, the way you practice is the way you play," Pruitt said. "You don't practice badly on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and then play well on Saturday — that doesn't happen. We have to improve practicing. We have to understand our expectations at practice, and I think that will help us grow as football players and as a football team. And we better, because now the real season starts."
The Florida game is coming at a critical point in the season for the Vols, who play SEC heavyweights Georgia, Auburn and Alabama in that order after Florida's visit.
Last season, the Gators completed a 63-yard pass on the game's final play to escape with a 26-20 win over Tennessee.
"It was definitely disappointing," Tennessee senior defensive end Kyle Phillips said. "Definitely a disappointing game. The Tennessee-Florida game is always a great one. We've just got to come in tomorrow and prepare for that. We're expecting a good game."