NORMAN, Okla. -- Often overwhelmed and outmatched nearly all night, Tennessee left Oklahoma in the overnight hours of Sunday morning with some semblance of pride and encouragement.
It wasn't pretty most of the night, but the Volunteers will feel they weren't far away from being within a possession of the fourth-ranked team in the country.
Still, Tennessee will know it still has a long way to go to join the nation's elite.
Oklahoma turned three long drives into touchdowns and let its talented, disruptive defense do the rest as the No. 4 Sooners beat the Vols 34-10 on Saturday night in front of 85,622, the sixth-largest crowd in the history of Owen Field at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.
The Vols looked like a team that had nearly a third of its travel roster comprised of players who joined the program earlier this year, but the youth didn't keep them from trying to fight back from a 20-point second-half deficit.
"I don't like losing at all," freshman defensive end Derek Barnett said. "I know a bunch of my classmates who came in don't like losing. We're just trying to do the right things to win ball games. It hurts, but you've just got to learn from it and keep on pushing."
"We fought, and we didn't give up. That was the mood [in the locker room]. We made some mistakes that hurt us bad."
Many of those came early to put Tennessee (2-1) in a hole, and a few more came later as the Vols were trying to scrap and claw their way back into a game.
The most costly mistakes were in the second half, when Tennessee had two passes intercepted in the end zone, including one Oklahoma cornerback Julian Wilson ran back 100 yards for the final score of the game.
The effort with which his team played in the second half left second-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones both proud and disappointed after the game.
"We lost the game," he said. "There's a lot of guys in that room that are hurting, and I told them, 'Your hurt level is a direct correlation to your investment level.' We have a lot of individuals on this football team that are investing in it a lot, but you have to learn from it.
"It's a long football season. We knew there was going to be good days and bad days with this young football team. We just have to keep grinding.
"I thought they competed, but there's a lot of great learning experiences. At the end of the day, it's all about getting the victory, and we weren't able to do that tonight. We have to learn from it and not make the same mistakes twice."
The Sooners (3-0) turned Quentin Hayes's sack-fumble into a touchdown, one that was aided by a coverage bust in Tennessee's secondary, and the Vols were fortunate not to lose a fumble on the ensuing kickoff.
Oklahoma's big, athletic defensive front feasted on Tennessee's young offensive line, which started two true freshmen in Jashon Robertson at right guard and Coleman Thomas at right tackle and used its third different starting lineup of the year.
Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley was sacked four times, and the Vols had minus-11 rushing yards and 10 lost-yardage plays in the first half.
"It's hard to mesh with just experimenting with it with just one week," admitted left tackle Kyler Kerbyson, who started the season's first two games at right tackle. "I think the freshmen really handled themselves in stride. The fact that this is their first time in a hostile environment at an away game, they didn't get down on themselves, even if they had bad plays.
"They had a snap-and-clear mentality, which is really good."
Oklahoma scored 13 points on its first three possessions of the game and finished the first half with 293 yards of offense after an 81-yard drive that ended in a Keith Ford touchdown run with 93 seconds left in the half for a 20-7 lead.
Jones and his staff felt it shouldn't have happened.
Tennessee's coach challenged a potential fumble by Oklahoma freshman Samaje Perine, but the ruling that there was no fumble stood upon further review and Oklahoma scored three plays later.
"I felt very confident it was a fumble. That's why we challenged it," Jones said. "Unfortunately, they didn't see it that way. You have learn from it, you have to move on and you have to play the next play. We weren't able to get the stop, and we gave up seven points.
"With the rule, every coaches' box, every press box has a TV. Our coaches felt extremely, extremely confident that it was a fumble. It didn't turn out that way."
Oklahoma stretched its lead to 27-7 by taking the opening drive of the third quarter 75 yards for a touchdown, but Tennessee's defense forced three punts, stopped another drive on fourth down and blocked a field goal after that.
Offensively, the Vols picked up 180 of their 313 yards of offense in the second half, and freshman tailback Jalen Hurd's runs of 43 and 29 accounted for most of Tennessee's 112 rushing yards for the game.
Beaten and battered all night, Worley had a jump ball into the corner of the end zone hauled in by Oklahoma corner Zack Sanchez on a play Tennessee receiver Jason Croom could have made.
He forced another throw that was tipped and taken goal line to goal line by Wilson.
"We were a couple plays away," Worley said. "It shows how far we've come as a football team. A lot young guys playing, being on the road against the No. 4 team -- you couldn't ask for any more opportunities than we good. That's where we've got to learn and correct this upcoming week. I think the hurt was definitely there because of how close we were."
Tennessee handled an early-season out-of-conference road trip to a top-five team better than it did in a 59-14 loss at Oregon last September, and Jones sees progress, plenty of work remaining and a team with a changed attitude.
"Losing will never be accepted here," he said. "Not in Tennessee football. We hurt, we move on and we work to be better.
"That locker room's different in all aspects," Jones added. "The hurt factor, the care factor is much different. Now what do we do with it? How do we build upon it? We're going to be a good football team, and we're going to get back to Tennessee football. It'll happen."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.