The Big Orange improved to 3-1 Saturday at Neyland Stadium, rolling to a 31-7 halftime lead and coasting home from there in a 41-10 drubbing of Buffalo, now 1-4.
“I was proud of how we jumped out; it was a really good first half,” Vol head coach Derek Dooley said. “The second half I was really disappointed. We lost our focus and made a ton of mistakes on offense – drops, (fumbled) snaps, penalties, missed assignments. We just looked sloppy, and that was disappointing.”
The keys to victory? Round up the usual suspects. Tyler Bray completed 21 of 30 passes for 342 yards and four touchdowns. Those numbers would've been considerably more imposing if not for three on-target passes that were dropped.
Da' Rick Rogers, picking up the slack now that wide receiver running mate Justin Hunter is out for the season with a torn ACL, posted 180 yards and two touchdowns on seven catches.
Tauren Poole, bouncing back from a poor outing in Game 3 at Florida, rushed for 101 yards on 17 carries.
Freshman DeAnthony Arnett, who led Tennessee with eight catches at Florida, recorded just three receptions versus Buffalo but two went for touchdowns.
Bray, who was 14-of-20 for 248 yards in the opening two periods, conceded that Tennessee was “sluggish” in the second half after executing exceptionally well in the first. When you play as well as the Vols did before intermission, however, you can afford to relax a bit.
“We came out with a good game plan,” Bray said. “The first half we came out real strong ... fired up.”
Apparently, the first-half game plan was “Throw the ball to Da'Rick Rogers.” The 6-3, 215-pound sophomore caught six balls for 154 yards and two TDs in the first two periods. That didn't surprise Bray one bit.
“He's a hard guy to cover,” the Vol quarterback said. “He's a big, physical receiver and catches well. Arnett stepped up big today and Zero (Zach Rogers) stepped up big today.”
Zach Rogers turned a quick hitch into a 14-yard gain on Tennessee's opening scrimmage play and later added a 10-yard gain on third-and-nine that extended a second-quarter touchdown drive.
Another noteworthy Vol was freshman Devrin Young. After missing the first three games due to a fractured collarbone, he wasted no time making his presence felt in Game 4. Fielding Buffalo's first punt at the Vol 9-yard line, Young weaved 43 yards before punter Jacob Schum made a touchdown-saving tackle at the Bulls' 48-yard line.
Tennessee needed just three plays to crash the end zone from there, Rajion Neal scoring untouched from 20 yards out on a flanker reverse to give Tennessee a 7-0 lead barely three minutes into the game.
The Vols launched a 12-play, 84-yard drive on their second possession to go up 14-0. The key plays were completions of 11, 10 and 7 yards to Da'Rick Rogers — the last one producing the score.
Just as it appeared the rout was on, however, Tennessee went to sleep. Buffalo quarterback Chazz Anderson froze the Vol defense with a ball fake to the left, then skirted right end and rambled 68 yards to narrow the gap to 14-7.
Defensive end Jacques Smith, who was badly fooled on the play, summed up his miscue in nine words: “It was a simple read. That happens. Next question.”
Tennessee bounced back quickly. A 56-yard strike from Bray to Da'Rick Rogers led to a 28-yard Michael Palardy field goal that padded the lead to 17-7 with 30 seconds left in the first quarter.
Bray and Rogers connected again – this time for 58 yards – to set up Tennessee's third TD, eventually closing the deal with a 12-yard hookup that widened the gap to 24-7 with 8:25 left to halftime.
The Vols weren't done yet, however. Bray threw a quick hitch to Arnett, who sped the final 9 yards to complete a 13-yard touchdown play that capped an 11-play, 72-yard drive and gave the Big Orange its 31-7 halftime cushion.
Tennessee slowed down after the break but didn't stop completely. Bray hit Arnett with an 8-yard TD pass in the third quarter, and Palardy booted another 28-yard field goal in the fourth as the gap widened to 41-7 with 11:32 remaining. Buffalo answered with a 30-yard Peter Fardon field goal that concluded the scoring with 8:38 to go.
Bray now has thrown multiple-TD passes in 10 consecutive games, extending his school record in that category.
Tennessee dominated statistically. The Vols converted on 12 of 16 third-down tries, compared to Buffalo's 3 of 13. Tennessee also piled up big advantages in first downs (27-10) and total yards (541-264). The Bulls got 108 of their yards on two big plays – Anderson's 68-yard keeper and a 40-yard pass to Ed Young.
“On defense, it's the same old story,” Dooley grumbled. “We play great defense for 51 plays and give up two plays for 108 yards. Somehow we've got to eliminate that. We make a mental error and nobody else can make up for it.”
Still, the Vols performed well enough to win handily. That gives them a little momentum heading into a stretch that sees them play Georgia, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina the next four weeks.
“We did what we needed to do,” Dooley surmised, “and it was a good win.... Now we turn our attention to what lies ahead.”