KNOXVILLE — Massachusetts got the football with the chance to take a lead four times in the fourth quarter against Tennessee on Saturday.
Four times, the Volunteers' defense stood its ground against a winless team playing without its best player and its starting quarterback.
That's what it took for Tennessee to emerge with a 17-13 victory over UMass in front of a Neyland Stadium crowd of 95,324 that thinned considerably as the afternoon sun added misery to a lackluster performance by the Vols.
"Just flat-out unacceptable," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said afterward.
Tennessee (3-1) used two quarterbacks and mustered just 58 yards of offense in the second half. The defense, though stout in the fourth quarter, allowed the visiting Minutemen (0-5) to go on a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter to make it a one-possession game.
Massachusetts quarterback Andrew Ford left the game on the team's next series with an injury, effectively ending the visitors' chances of pulling off a monumental upset.
"We played better than them," UMass linebacker Bryton Barr said. "They're a heck of a team, obviously, but just eliminate a couple of mistakes and we're winning that game."
The Vols failed to score in the fourth quarter and could not run the clock out, which forced the defense to make one last stand against a UMass offense playing with backup quarterback Ross Comis. Massachusetts took over with 1:09 remaining and needing to drive 83 yards for a potential go-ahead touchdown. The Minutemen turned the ball over on downs.
"We finally played with some energy and passion," Jones said. "I want to thank the fans for staying. I thought they made a difference at the end of the game. It starts first and foremost with me and everyone else in our organization. It is unacceptable, and we'll get back to work tonight."
The Vols need answers offensively before hosting Georgia this Saturday for a division showdown. A loss almost assuredly would end Tennessee's chances of representing the East in the SEC championship game in December.
Early on Saturday, the Vols looked as if they might be dealing with a hangover from last week's crushing 26-20 loss at Florida. They went three-and-out on their first possession, Quinten Dormady fumbled on a quarterback keeper near midfield on their second possession and Brent Cimaglia missed a 45-yard field-goal try off the right goal post on their third series. The fourth series started with promise but was sabotaged by an offensive-pass-interference call against senior receiver Josh Smith.
A faint chorus of boos rose from the crowd after Tennessee's early struggles, but Dormady completed his last eight passes of the first half as the Vols briefly came alive.
UMass was missing tight end and leading receiver Adam Breneman and struggled early, too. Breneman is a Penn State transfer who is on the watch lists for the Biletnikoff, John Mackey and Wuerffel trophies. He was announced before the game to be out with an ankle injury.
Through a quarter and a half, Tennessee's bright spot was the play of punter Trevor Daniel. The senior's first two kicks sailed 56 and 53 yards. Both pinned the Minutemen inside their own 3-yard line.
Finally, the Vols broke through when Dormady found Brandon Johnson for a 66-yard pass to get them in the red zone for the first time. John Kelly's 12-yard touchdown run on the next play broke the deadlock, putting Tennessee ahead 7-0 with 4:33 left in the second quarter.
From there, the teams traded touchdowns to end the half.
Tennessee looked on the verge of pulling away when Aaron Medley hit a 40-yard field goal to make it 17-6 with 7:32 left in the third quarter. UMass answered with a touchdown, and the Vols turned to backup quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who was ineffective as the game remained close through the final quarter.
"It's just, overall, as a football team, that was unacceptable," Jones said. "That's not to take anything away from UMass. They were gritty, and we knew they were gritty. We knew they were better than their record shows.
Jones said the onus is on everyone in the program to bring passion and energy in getting things corrected with the meat of the league schedule still ahead.
"It's my job to make sure everything is thoroughly gone through," Jones said. "Whatever we've got to do. If we need to work around the clock, we'll work around the clock to make sure we get these things corrected."
Contact David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org.