KNOXVILLE — Tennessee is well armed at quarterback and loaded at receiver, and it quickly turned a shootout into a blowout Saturday against Cincinnati.
Quarterback Tyler Bray passed for a career-high 405 yards and four touchdowns and fellow sophomores Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers combined for 256 receiving yards and three TDs in a 45-23 Volunteers victory at Neyland Stadium.
The 6-foot-6 Bray repeatedly found the 6-foot-4 Hunter and the 6-foot-3 Rogers open. Bray completed his first eight passes, 11 of his first 12 and finished 34 of 41.
Hunter and Rogers each had 10 catches for 156 and 100 yards, respectively, following up on last week’s 100-yard games in a 42-16 defeat of Montana.
“Overall, our passing game was hitting on all cylinders,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “The quarterback played really well throwing the ball. The two big wideouts backed up what they did last week.”
Cincinnati (1-1) picked up where it left off while scoring 72 points against Austin Peay last week. Isaiah Pead bounced off UT’s Daryl Vereen and ran 65 yards for a touchdown 86 seconds after the opening kickoff.
But by the time Pead could return to the field, Tennessee (2-0) had scored two touchdowns.
Freshman Marlin Lane capped the Vols’ seven-play, 73-yard opening drive with a 2-yard TD run to tie the score at 7 and set the stage for stunning strategy from UT coach Derek Dooley. With 9:53 left in the first quarter and the score tied, Dooley called for an onside kick, which kicker Michael Palardy promptly executed by recovering his own dribbler up the center of the field.
“The first drive, the guy goes 60-something yards and runs all over us, and we score,” Dooley said. “So I just wanted to keep a little momentum going, and it worked. So that was a good way to kind of flip the momentum.”
Four plays later, Bray lofted a strike over man coverage to Hunter near the left pylon for a 33-yard TD with 8:08 left in the first quarter.
Cincinnati answered 100 seconds later with a 13-yard TD pass from Zach Collaros to Adrien Robinson, who got a foot in bounds after making a difficult twisting catch under the goalpost.
But the Vols responded with two TD passes from Bray to Rogers to take a 28-14 halftime lead. Rogers’ second TD catch, which came with 1:15 left in the first half, was difficult. He reached back for a ball behind him in the end zone and held on despite getting sandwiched between two defenders while losing his helmet.
The Bearcats defense rarely pressured Bray, and generally left receivers wide open.
“The biggest thing is rushing the passer,” Cincinnati coach Butch Jones said. “They threw the ball 40-something times and we had zero sacks.”
Tennessee’s defense was often iffy, allowing 396 yards, but Cincinnati couldn’t convert two 4th-and-1 plays while trailing 21-14 in the second quarter and opted for a field goal in the third quarter after failing to score three straight times from the 1-yard line.
“We made a lot of mistakes defensively,” Dooley said. “Lining up — that’s half the battle. Those guys are fast-paced and they get in a lot of formations. And they stretched us.
“We didn’t do a good job of tackling early. But the difference was … the two 4th-and-1s at midfield … and goal line stop in the third quarter.”
On the first fourth-down failure Pead was dropped for a one-yard loss by freshmen A.J. Johnson and Maurice Couch at the Cincinnati 48-yard line.
UT defensive tackle Malik Jackson drove an offensive lineman 3-5 yards into the backfield to disrupt the next one, helping Brent Brewer drop Collaros for no gain at the Tennessee 46 with five minutes left in the half.
“You look at the first half,” Jones said, “and two fourth-and-shorts that we didn’t come up with anything.”
Bray scored on a one-yard sneak and threw a 16-yard TD pass to Austin Rogers in the third quarter. Palardy’s 37-yard field goal concluded the scoring with 1:44 remaining.
Tennessee’s running game started slow — 24 yards on its first nine carries — but a 17-yarder by Tauren Poole on the 10th attempt got things rolling. Actually, Poole made that play, after finding nothing straight ahead and bouncing to his right toward the sideline.
Poole finished with 101 yards on 21 carries; Tennessee had 126 yards on 35 attempts.
Pead had 14 carries for 155 yards.
“I felt like we were ready to go point-for-point with them,” Pead said. “If it would have been a shootout, we were up for it. Unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way.”
Collaros was 21 of 34 for 230 yards and two TDs. D.J. Woods had nine catches for 111 yards.
Brewer and middle linebacker Austin Johnson led UT with six tackles each.
Tennessee visits Florida on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
“We’ve got to get ready for big ball next week,” Dooley said.