KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee needed a final bit of midair thievery to pull out a 47-26 victory over stubborn Akron before 81,719 fans Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.
With the Vols nursing a shaky 33-26 lead in the fourth quarter, cornerback Eric Gordon intercepted Zips quarterback Dalton Williams’ pass – Tennessee’s third pick of the night – and one play later the Vols’ rifle-armed signal caller Tyler Bray fired a 19-yard touchdown strike to Justin Hunter to put Akron away.
It was the first time all night the Vols – they played like they hadn’t shaken off the ill effects of last week’s loss to Florida – could take a deep breath against the 34-point underdog Zips.
“That was a tough game and I knew it would be,” said Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, whose Vols are 3-1 for the first time since 2006. “I’m proud of the team. We had a lot of things go wrong in the first half, but we dominated the second half, 24-3. So that’s a good step for the team.”
Less than three minutes after Hunter’s touchdown reception, Bray tossed a 24-yard scoring strike to Jacob Carter and coach Terry Bowden’s Zips were zapped.
“I’m really disappointed (with the loss),” said Bowden, who is 0-3 against Tennesssee, including two losses when he coached at Auburn. “But I’m really proud of our players. We punched when Tennessee punched and weaved and bobbed when they did. They just had too many weapons for us.”
Bowden’s father, former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, spoke to the Zips before the game and watched all the action from the second row of the east stands, sitting among a small contingent of Akron fans.
Tennessee’s offense overwhelmed the Zips with 633 total yards, the first time the Vols have surpassed that plateau since getting 657 against Western Kentucky in 2009.
The Vols had a long list of offensive stars in this one.
Bray completed 27 of 43 passes for 401 yards and four touchdowns, with one interception. It was Bray’s second career 400-yard passing performance, following up a 405-yard effort against Cincinnati in 2011, and fifth by a quarterback at Tennessee – Peyton Manning went for 523, 492 and 408 during his illustrious career with the Vols.
After a somewhat slow start, probably a lingering effect of last week’s late-game flop – he was 1 of 10 in the fourth quarter – against Florida, Bray finished off the Zips with the two fourth-quarter touchdown, stretching a 30-26 lead to the final 21-point margin.
On his second pass attempt, Bray was intercepted by Akron’s Avis Commack, who galloped 44 yards for a touchdown less than a minute into the game.
“I went to the wrong side,” Bray said. “I saw something I didn’t like, decided to go to the other side and I was wrong.”
In addition to scoring throws to Hunter and Carter, Bray also found Rajion Neal and Brendan Downs for touchdowns.
The 6-yard toss to Downs turned out OK Bray’s incorrect play call.
“Bray called it the wrong way,” Dooley said. “It was supposed to go the other way, but he called it left so Downsy got it.
“I told Tyler I was proud of him because he made a lot of mistakes early on. He was getting antsy. He just kept settling in and played well down the stretch. He had a good demeanor about him.”
Said Downs, “The call did get a little messed up. When I heard it, I knew it wasn’t quite right so I was a little confused. But I just ran the corner, got open and caught it.”
Tailback Rajion Neal had a career game with 151 rushing yards on 22 carries and caught a 3-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. Neal’s production was the best by a Vols back since Tauren Poole gained 162 against Oregon in 2010.
“I have a lot of confidence in (the offensive linemen) and they believe in me,” Neal said. “They put me in some good situations so all I need to do is just finish.”
Hunter caught eight passes for 115 yards and a touchdown.
Half of Tennessee’s highly touted wideout tandem (Cordarrelle Patterson shares top billing), Hunter wasn’t satisfied with the offense’s effort.
“I think we could have (put up more points),” he said. “We could have capitalized more in the red zone. We have to take advantage while we’re down there.”
Place-kicker Derrick Brodus was 4 for 4 on field goals of 37, 23, 22 and 28 yards, matching Akron’s Robert Stein’s four successful kicks of 45, 32, 37 and 37 yards. Brodus is 6 for 6 in his relative short career.
Brodus, who missed an extra point last week, tied a school record with 17 points, matching the mark previously shared by Alex Walls (2002), Fuad Reveiz )1982) and Alan Duncan (1978).
“It definitely helps,” Brodus said of Dooley having confidence in him. “Being a kicker, it’s hard enough if you miss one kick, you’re down, and for the players and coaches to tell you to just move on to the next one, it helps.”
Akron battled Tennessee to a 23-23 tie at halftime, but unlike in recent games against Southeastern Conference opponents, the Vols refused to roll over in the second half.
There were concerns about whether the Vols’ defense could stop – or even slow down – the Zips. Akron sliced the Vols’ lead to 30-26 on Stein’s 37-yard field goal with 14:50 left.
Akron (1-3) couldn’t mount another threat the rest of the way and Tennessee managed two touchdowns in less than 3 minutes to seal the win.
Defensive back Byron Moore snagged two interceptions, broke up a pass and recorded a career-high 10 tackles. A.J. Johnson also had 11 tackles.
Tennessee’s secondary has eight interceptions this season. The Vols didn’t reach that total until Game 11 against Vanderbilt in 2011.
“He’s playing good football,” Dooley said of Moore. “He’s playing smart football. He’s just really settled in.”
Cornerback Eric Gordon’s interception at the Vols’ 1 broke Akron’s heart and set in motion an emotional swing that led to Tennessee’s two late fourth quarter touchdowns.
Akron had its moments as well.
Dalton Williams completed 27 of 49 passes for 229 yards and the Zips added 115 rushing yards, led by Quentin Hines’ 76 on six carries.
The two teams combined for 164 offensive plays and 977 total yards of offense.
The Vols now turn their focus toward unbeaten Georgia, which mauled Vanderbilt, 48-3, on Saturday. That game starts a nightmarish streak of four SEC games against teams – Mississippi State, Alabama and South Carolina follow Georgia – with a combined record of 16-0.
The Bulldogs, Crimson Tide and Gamecocks are ranked in the Associated Press’ Top 10.
“We’ll see how we handle it,” Dooley said. “We play a heck of a team next week
The teams battled to a 23-23 halftime tie – Brodus and Stein each had three field goals in the first half and the teams combined for 570 yards of offense and three turnovers, two by Tennessee.
A.J. Johnson scored on a 2-yard run to get Tennessee on the scoreboard and Bray and Downs hooked up on a touchdown pass.
With 2:14 left in the opening half, the Vols failed to pick up a first down on fourth-and-1 from at the Zips’ 29 when Johnson looked like he hit a brick wall.
On the next snap, Akron’s Quentin Hines bolted 70 yards for a touchdown and a 23-20 lead and a chorus of boos from nervous fans rained down on the Vols.
Brodus’ field goal enabled the Vols to leave the field in a tie game.
Akron, which hasn’t had a winning season since 2005 and posted back-to-back 1-11 campaigns in 2010 and 2011, used four Williams completions to move to Tennessee’s 27 in the third quarter. But Moore got his second interception at Tennessee’s 1 to thwart the Zips’ scoring threat.
Moore is the first Vols player with two picks in a game since Eric Berry did it against Arkansas in 2007.
The Vols’ ensuing drive ended when Bray misfired on a fourth-and-seven at the Zips’ 36.
It was the first time this season UT failed to score on its first second-half possession.
Later in the quarter, Bray engineered a 66-yard drive in eight plays, hitting Neal on a 3-yard touchdown strike with 6:47 on the clock. That pushed Tennessee’s lead to 30-23.
Akron, as it had done all night, came back with a scoring drive. Stein kicked a 37-yard field goal, his fourth of the game, Brodus salvaged a Tennessee drive with his Stein-matching fourth field goal, this one from 28 yards out with 12:28 left, extending the Vols’ lead to 33-26.
Tennessee’s quick-strike scores late in the game dashed Akron’s bid for a huge upset.
Western Michigan, Ball State, Central Michigan and Northern Illinois, who along with Akron are members of the Mid-American Conference, did knock off BCS automatic-qualifying schools.
Tennessee avoided that trap against the Zips, who were 32-point underdogs.
NOTE: Ooltewah High’s marching band performed at halftime ahead of Tennessee’s nationally known Pride of the Heartland band.
When the performance was over, the Owl’s band members received a nice applause from the fans in attendance.
Tennessee’s band continued the train theme with the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”
Akron 10 13 0 3 – 26
Tennessee 10 13 7 17 – 47
AKR – Avis Commack 44 interception return (Robert Stein kick), 14:25
TEN – A.J. Johnson 2 run (Derrick Brodus kick), 9:55
TEN – FG Brodus 37, 6:55
AKR – FG Stein 45, 3:27
TEN – FG Brodus 23, 14:53
AKR – FG Stein 32, 10:40
TEN – Brendan Downs 6 pass from Tyler Bray (Brodus kick), 8:12
AKR – FG Stein 37, 5:04
AKR – Quentin Hines 70 run (Stein kick), 2:14
TEN – FG Brodus 22, 1:03
TEN – Neal 3 pass from Bray (Brodus kick), 6:47
AKR – FG Stein 37, 14:50
TEN – FG Brodus 28, 12:28
TEN – Justin Hunter 19 pass from Bray (Brodus kick), 9:00
TEN – Jacob Carter 24 pass from Bray (Brodus kick), 6:34
First Downs 18 33
Rushes-Yds. 26-115 46-232
Passing Yds. 229 401
Com.-Att.-Int. 27-49-3 27-43-1
Total Offense 344 633
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 2-1
Punts.-Avg. 5-45.4 2-40.5
Penalties-Yds. 6-40 5-30
RUSHING — Akron: Quentin Hines 6-76, Jawon Chisholm 14-53, Conor Hundley 2-8, Dalton Williams 1-minus 4, Team 2-minus 8, Tyler Williams 1-minus 10; Tennessee: Rajion Neal 22-151, Marlin Lane 9-47, Justin King 1-18, Cordarrelle Patterson 2-12, Quenshan Watson 8-6, Alton Howard 1-3, A.J. Johnson 2-2, Tyler Bray 1-minus 7.
PASSING — Akron: Williams 27-43-3 229; Tennessee: Bray 27-43-1 401.
RECEIVING — Akron: Marquelo Suel 12-92, Zach D’Orazio 6-72, Dee Frierson 4-11, Keith Sconiers 2-17, T. Williams 1-21, L.T. Smith 1-9, Will Fleming 1-7; Tennessee: Justin Hunter 8-115, Zach Rogers 3-72, Neal 3-22, Mychal Rivera 2-43, Ben Bartholomew 2-21, Patterson 2-20, Howard 2-18, Jacob Carter 1-24, Vincent Dallas 1-11, Brendan Downs 1-6.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)