KNOXVILLE – Tennessee didn’t have much trouble moving the ball against Akron on Saturday night in Neyland Stadium. It didn’t have much trouble slowing down the Zips’ passing attack, either.
But finding a comfortable margin on the scoreboard took the better part of three quarters before the Vols pulled away for a 47-26 victory in their last game before facing four straight ranked SEC opponents.
The Vols kick off that stretch on Saturday at No. 5 Georgia (TV: CBS, 3:30 p.m.), one of three teams the Vols face in October currently ranked in the top 10.
Tennessee pulled away from the Zips (1-3) in the second half to reach 3-1 for the first time since 2006. But it took a fight to get there.
“It was a tough game, and I knew it would be,” Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley said. “They caused a lot of problems with our offense, but the disappointing part was the turnovers early in the game. We spotted them 10 points on turnovers, but I was real proud of the team in the second half. They came out and dominated the second half, 24-3, so that’s a good step for the team. We ran the ball well. We threw it well.”
Beginning its second possession of the second half tied, 23-23, Tennessee moved deep into Akron territory but appeared to be stopped when officials said tight end Mychal Rivera fumbled. A video review overturned the call, and the Vols scored three plays later to take the lead for good at 30-23.
The Zips, though, drove for a field goal on their next possession, and it wasn’t until Justin Hunter scored on a 19-yard pass from Tyler Bray that Tennessee truly seemed in control. That score, which gave UT a 40-26 lead, was set up by an Eric Gordon interception one play earlier.
Former walk-on Jacob Carter had his first career touchdown, giving the Vols a 47-26 lead.
Kicker Derrick Brodus had four field goals for Tennessee, which topped 600 yards of total offense. Quarterback Tyler Bray finished with 401 yards passing, the second time in his career he’s thrown for more than 400 in a single game.
Brodus also added five extra points to give him 17 points on the evening, tying the school scoring record for a kicker, last accomplished in 2002 by Alex Walls vs. Wyoming.
“I didn’t want to hammer him for one extra point,” Dooley said. “I just felt like he deserved another shot. He went out there and kicked it great. What did he have, four field goals? And they were big. We were struggling in the red area. Those guys were covering us better. We missed a lot of those tight red-area throws. They were packing the box making it hard to run. They had one-on-one outside. We were really struggling in that tight red area to score. That’s what happened in the first half. I think we kicked three field goals in the first half.”
It was a solid night on the ground for the Vols as well.
Rajion Neal had a career-best 151 yards on 22 carries, and Tennessee finished with 232 yards rushing.
Gaining yards wasn’t a problem for Tennessee all night long. In the first half, Tennessee outgained the Zips by more than 150 yards, but still ended the first half in a draw.
Akron’s Avis Commack intercepted Bray in the first minute of the game, returning it 44 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. The Vols answered, driving 75 yards in 13 plays and tying the game on A.J. Johnson’s 2-yard touchdown run.
The teams traded a pair of field goals — Akron’s Robert Stein connecting from 45 and 32 yards and UT’s Brodus hitting from 37 and 23 yards — before the Vols broke a 13-13 tie midway through the second quarter.
Bray connected with Zach Rogers for a 48-yard gain to the Akron 5. Two plays later, he found tight end Brendan Downs – playing in his first game this season after suffering a knee injury late in fall camp — for a 6-yard touchdown.
The Zips answered with Stein’s third field goal of the first half, making the score 20-16 with 5:04 left before halftime.
On their next drive, the Vols moved past midfield but Johnson was stuffed on a fourth-down conversion near the Akron 30-yard line. Zips running back Quentin Hines out-ran the Vols’ defense for a 70-yard touchdown on the next play, giving Akron a 23-20 lead, its first since the first minute of the game.
The Vols zoomed down the field, moving inside the Akron 10-yard line in just four plays, the last of which was a 35-yard catch-and-run by Marlin Lane. But after Bray completed a pass to Alton Howard on first down, the Vols had to settle for a Brodus field goal and a 23-23 tie going into halftime.