KNOXVILLE — A chilly, breezy afternoon didn’t cool Tyler Bray’s hot hand. Neither did Buffalo.
Bray passed for 342 yards and four touchdowns while engineering Tennessee’s 41-10 rout of the overmatched Bulls on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
The 6-foot-6 sophomore completed 21 of 30 passes and had a couple of accurate throws dropped, including a would-be touchdown to tight end Mychal Rivera, before giving way to senior Matt Simms midway through the fourth quarter.
Bray picked up right where left off despite a season-ending injury to leading receiver Justin Hunter on Sept. 17 in a loss at Florida and the ensuing idle week.
Bray’s favorite target was sophomore Da’Rick Rogers, who had seven catches for a careerhigh 180 yards and two touchdowns. Rogers’ first TD reception was a 7-yarder that helped give the Volunteers a 14-0 lead with 3:53 left in the first quarter. His second one came from 12 yards out, and gave UT a 24-7 advantage with 8:25 left in the first half.
“Tyler had a good game,” said UT coach Derek Dooley, whose Vols improved to 3-1. “He’s throwing the ball well and used a lot of different guys, especially early on. Da’Rick had a real good game. … We need him to have games like that. Caught some big third downs. In the first half, the only third down we didn’t convert we dropped the ball.”
Many of the students were absent with it being fall break, and many other fans were also missing with Buffalo (1-4) being the visitor. But those present in an announced attendance of 87,758 were on their feet early and often, beginning with freshman Devrin Young’s 43-yard punt return to the Buffalo 48-yard line after the Bulls began the game with a three-and-out.
It was the first touch for the freshman from Bearden, who had suffered a broken collarbone in late July.
Sophomore Rajion Neal began the scoring by running a reverse in from 20 yards out with 11:58 left in the first quarter.
Buffalo answered Rogers’ first TD catch when quarterback Chazz Anderson appeared to be invisible to UT defenders while running 68 yards for a TD to make the score 14-7 with 3:21 left in the first quarter.
• But the Vols responded by driving 63 yards for a 28-yard Michael Palardy field goal with 30 seconds left in the opening quarter, and drove for touchdowns on their next two drives.
Bray’s 13-yard pass to DeAnthony Arnett and Palardy’s PAT gave the Vols a 31-7 lead with 2:08 left in the first half.
Arnett, another true freshman, opened the second half scoring with an 8-yard TD catch with 3:49 left in the third quarter. Bray made an accurate throw on a fairly difficult attempt while rolling to his right near the sideline before throwing to a diving Arnett, who was near the sideline in the end zone.
“He (Bray) had patience,” Buffalo cornerback Courtney Lester said. “He picked us apart, really. He made all the right reads. Some of the plays had Josh Copland and myself calling their plays and he (Bray) would go to his second read to open receivers.”
Arnett had three catches for 27 yards and was one of eight targets Bray found. Rogers is talented, but replacing Hunter will otherwise be done by committee.
“You can’t focus your offense around one guy,” Bray said. “He is a great ballplayer, but we still have 10 other guys on the field who have to step up and play. We did that today.”
The Vols outgained Buffalo 541-264, and UT’s running game showed marked improvement. Senior Tauren Poole rushed for 101 yards on 17 carries, and the Vols finished with 44 attempts for 199 yards.
Those aren’t breathtaking statistics against Buffalo, but UT’s running game looked better than it did against Montana.
“It’s a lot better than it has been,” sophomore right tackle Ja’Wuan James said. “There is still room for us to improve like when it comes to finishing on our blocks.”
Dooley also saw progress in the ground game after appearing less than enamored with Poole’s performance at Florida.
“I was pleased with Tauren,” Dooley said. “When you average 5.9 a carry and you have over 100 yards, it’s a good job.”
Dooley was disappointed in Tennessee’s performance in the second half. The Vols looked flat, and among the miscues were a blocked punt and a fumbled kickoff.
“We lost our focus,” Dooley said. “We made a ton of mistakes on offense: drops, snaps, penalties, missed assignments. It just looked sloppy.”
The Vols will likely need four quarters of precision next week. They host Georgia on Saturday at 7 p.m. It begins a four-week stretch that includes home games with No. 1 LSU and No. 10 South Carolina and a visit to No. 3 Alabama.
“Now, we turn our attention,” Dooley said, “to what lies ahead.”