After a month of struggling to produce on offense in four consecutive losses to Southeastern Conference teams, Tennessee (4-5) found some rhythm from some young Vols on homecoming night. The Vols are 26-2 in homecoming games since 1984 and have only lost 12 regular-season games played in November or December since 1990.
Freshman Justin Worley's second start was much smoother than his first. After throwing for just 105 yards in a loss to South Carolina, Worley nearly had that doubled at halftime and finished 23 of 32 for 291 yards and a touchdown.
He got his first career touchdown after a drive that saw him hit Rajion Neal on an 18-yard pass and Da' Rick Rogers on a 13-yard toss. On first down, Worley threw 47 yards down the middle of the field to hit Rogers as he fell backward into the end zone to give Tennessee a 14-0 lead with 2:24 to go in the first quarter.
Rogers caught the ball nine times for 137 yards and one score.
Middle Tennessee (2-6) went three and out on its next possession. The Vols turned to redshirt freshman Jaron Toney, who had his first career carry on the previous drive, to move the ball on the ground.
Toney chipped away the yards, and Poole got his second touchdown on the night on a 7-yard run to make it 21-0.
Toney had 52 yards on 19 carries to lead the five tailbacks.
With starter Michael Palardy and backup Chip Rhome both sidelined with previously unannounced leg injuries, the Vols also fielded a new placekicker in redshirt freshman Derrick Brodus. Brodus, a walk-on who was an all-state soccer player at nearby Alcoa High School, connected on a 21-yard field goal as the first-half clock expired.
The Blue Raiders struggled to pick up first downs before halftime, and Logan Kilgore threw an interception to Austin Johnson, who returned it 22 yards to the MTSU 7. Poole ran the ball three straight times, the last a 1-yard touchdown with 9:05 left in the first quarter.
Though Kilgore had entered the game averaging 267 yards passing and having had 14 touchdowns over the past five games, Rick Stockstill sent backup Jeff Murphy in early in the second quarter. Murphy didn't fare much better in the first half and threw an interception of his own to Eric Gordon, whose 17-yard return helped set up Tennessee's field goal just before halftime.
Murphy led the Blue Raiders on a 52-yard drive on their first possession of the second half, but the drive stalled on downs when Murphy's pass on fourth-and-5 at the Vols 15 fell incomplete after the closest receiver tripped and fell. Murphy finished 14 of 21 for 108 yards and an interception that set up Brodus' field goal.
Tennessee outgained Middle Tennessee 411 yards to 230 and picked up nine more first downs.
The first-half offensive production was a relief for the Vols, who hadn't won since an Oct. 1 victory against Buffalo and hadn't even had a touchdown for 10 quarters. Worley's touchdown pass broke a streak of 128 passes by Tennessee quarterbacks without a scoring strike, dating to the third quarter of the Buffalo game.
But the Vols seemed to regress in the second half and didn't score again. After picking up 261 yards and 14 first downs in the first half, they had 150 yards and eight first downs after halftime and twice turned the ball over on downs in the red zone.