Tennessee’s Smokey mascot ran over an inflatable doll with “Hannah Montana” written on it with such force during the first half of Tennessee’s season-opening victory against Montana that you would’ve thought Eric Berry was wearing the Bluetick Coonhound get-up.
Hannah’s greatest hit, if you will, seemed like a fitting visual for the matchup. But while the Volunteers deflated Montana by repeatedly running past it, they rarely ran over the Grizzlies.
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley was mindful of accentuating the positives following a 42-16 victory Saturday night, but only after expressing disappointment about the Vols’ inability to run the ball.
“They whipped us at the line of scrimmage, I felt like, the whole game,” Dooley said. “That’s a real tribute to them, a veteran team with some big, physical guys. We didn’t run it the way we needed to run it, so we need to make a little improvement there.”
The concern is that the offensive line returns four starters after fielding a unit probably as green as any in program history in 2010. Perhaps the lack of a sexy opponent and a 100-minute lightning delay before kickoff shorted out the potential power game.
Maybe energy and execution were the primary disruptors. Communication among the linemen apparently wasn’t ideal.
And Montana did crowd the box a lot, particularly early, and paid for it dearly by getting beat for two long touchdown passes early. But even when the Grizzlies weren’t cheating to stuff the run, they denied the Tennessee O-line a push.
“Well, I mean, I’m very concerned,” Dooley said. “But I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, so let me qualify it.”
Montana dropped Tauren Poole for a safety on a simple straight-ahead handoff, and claimed a moral victory of sorts after keeping UT out of the end zone on 3rd-and-goal from the 2 and 4th-and-goal from the 1 with some 2 1/2 minutes remaining.
“I thought our guys played very courageous,” Montana coach Robin Pflugard said. “They fought hard all the way down to the fourth quarter when we made the goal line stand. I thought that was very, very impressive to go through a game like that and make a stand. They called a timeout and went for it, and I was very proud of our guys and how they stopped that last play.”
Tennessee also fumbled six times and muffed a punt inside the 10. It was one of two punts fielded inside the 10 by Marlin Lane, a promising freshman running back out of Daytona Beach, Fla., who scored two TDs and made two defenders whiff while gaining seven yards after the catch for a 9-yard TD reception.
“Marlin showed what I thought he would,” Dooley said. “He has some good ability. He scored a couple of touchdowns and made some guys miss. …
“Look, I’m pleased; it’s a good win. I’m not disappointed. I don’t want y’all to think that I am, because that’s a good team and a good program, and we won by a pretty good margin right there. And every time it got a little hairy we did something to get us out of it. So overall I was proud of the team.”
Montana had the ball in good field position after a safety early in the third quarter with a chance to make it a two-score game, but Volunteers defensive back Art Evans jumped a bubble screen for an interception he returned 37 yards for a score. It was a good start for Evans, who has looked capable at times during an up-and-down career, but had a long season in 2010, which included a long night against Alabama and Julio Jones.
“Give Art a lot of credit, because he had every reason to kind of shut it down, you know, last year,” Dooley said. “He went through a tough time last year; we signed all these DBs, and he’s a senior. But to his credit, he’s never complained, he’s never griped, he’s just gone to work. … I’m proud of him.”
Depth on defense will have to be developed on the fly.
“You guys see what happened when the twos went in there,” Dooley said. “We got gutted right down the field. So we’ve got a thin squad, you know, and – I hope – we’ve got to be able to hold up, because our twos didn’t look too swinging out there. …
“We need a big jump from game one to game two from a mistakes standpoint.”
Notes: Tennessee’s cupcake schedule doesn’t look quite as sweet after the openers. They should still be favored against Cincinnati (Saturday at 3:30 p.m., ESPN2) and Middle Tennessee State, and heavily favored against Buffalo, but the Blue Raiders and Bearcats – and Grizzlies, for that matter – have probably already chewed into the point spreads.
MTSU outgained Purdue 460-420 in a 27-24 loss at West Lafayette, Ind., and Cincinnati whizzed past Austin Peay, 72-10. Former Science Hill and Dobyns-Bennett player Ashlon Adams had four catches for 26 yards for the Governors. …
Tennessee’s passing game is going to be a tall task for opponents a lot better than Montana. The 6-foot-6 Bray looks like a million bucks when he plants and throws deep balls, as do 6-foot-4 Justin Hunter and 6-foot-3 Da’Rick Rogers when they’re running under those balls. “I really thought they lost two outstanding receivers (Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore) last year and I don’t think they missed a beat in their receiver play,” Pflugard said. “Eleven (Hunter) is a special guy and he is going to be a great player. He has an extra gear for a really tall guy. I think they are better there. … We did sack (Bray), but he did have too much time to throw it and he is an outstanding quarterback who will probably go and making a living out of it. You have to hit those guys who are going to be in the NFL someday.”