KNOXVILLE – Once Tyler Bray started going to Justin Hunter, the lights went out on Georgia State.
The Bray-to-Hunter tandem ignited a lethargic Tennessee offense that failed to impress anyone in the announced crowd of 87,821 fans at Neyland Stadium – there were actually far fewer fans in the place than that – and led the Vols to a 51-13 rout of Georgia State.
Bray completed 18 of 20 passes for 310 yards and four touchdowns and Tennessee scored the most points a Derek Dooley-coached UT team has produced since thrashing Ole Miss, 52-14, in 2010.
“We came out and didn’t have the spunk I was hoping to have,” Dooley said. “It’s never as good as you think, but it’s never as bad as you think. You’d like to be perfect and you need a clean game. Those rarely happen.”
Bray, the California gunslinger, passed for 333 yards and two touchdowns in Tennessee’s opening 35-21 win over North Carolina State and in two games has completed 45 of 61 passes for 643 yards and six touchdowns.
And he’s improving.
“Freshman year I was just going out and throwing it and playing on instinct,” Bray said. “Now I understand the game more and know what is going on. It helps when you have a great offensive line. These guys have blocked for me for about three years. I can’t ask for a better line.”
Bray’s touchdown throws to Hunter covered 25, 11 and 19 yards and he also found tight end Mychal Rivera on a 19-yard strike.
In 14 career starts, Bray has eight 300-yard passing performances and five with four-or-more touchdown passes.
Hunter tied a school record by becoming the ninth player to catch three touchdown passes in a game, the last Chris Hannon against Mississippi State in 2003. Donte Stallworth, Cedric Wilson, Marcus Nash and Carl Pickens also are on that illustrious list.
“I’m not going to say it was easy,” said Hunter, whose family attended the game. “Some of the catches were, but you have to play like you do in practice. I felt a lot more comfortable with one game under my belt.”
Now the Vols and Hunter eye Florida next week. In 2011 against the Gators, Hunter suffered a season-ending knee injury that required surgery.
Hunter was a frequent target on Saturday, catching eight passes for 146 yards. Cordarelle Patterson had three catches for 71 yards and Mychal Rivera snagged four for 70.
Rivera’s scoring catch ended a quick – really fast – three-play, 30-second drive.
“I think he came out of the N.C. State game a little disappointed so we’re trying to manage it,” Dooley said of Rivera. “He looked good in the pass game, caught a touchdown and it was good to see him get going. Seventy yards is a good number for a tight end.”
Patterson had 195 all-purpose yards Saturday, including 106 on three kickoff returns, to give him 360 in two games.
“There was shock and awe at the speed of Patterson,” Georgia State coach Bill Curry said. “I had a long talk with Mike Archer (North Carolina State assistant) and he said the guy is an NFL guy, and he just outran us. He’s special. I’d like to not see him again on the same field.”
Patterson thought Hunter had an outstanding game. His wasn’t so bad either.
“I was happy for him,” Patterson said of his teammate. “He was asking me why he hadn’t had a touchdown yet and I just told him to be patient and that his time would come, and tonight was his time. It was pretty awesome.
“Tyler and I are doing great. (We) have a bond and we just try to connect at practice and then bring it to the game.”
Throw in reserve quarterback Justin Worley’s 64 passing yards and the Vols had 374 against Georgia State, the third FCS opponent Tennessee has played in three years. Worley entered the game with 4:45 left in the third quarter and went 4-for-8.
Bray completed 13 straight passes and Worley extended the streak with two more from the second quarter to late in the third.
Tennessee’s ground game contributed 184 yards, with Rajion Neal gaining 65 on 13 carries and a 1-yard touchdown run to open the scoring in the Vols’ 18th consecutive home-opening win and 796th all-time victory – UT would be the eighth team to reach 800 wins. Neal also had a 5-yard scoring run to start the third quarter.
The Vols racked up 558 yards of total offense against the Panthers after chalking up 524 in the Georgia Dome a week ago.
A rainstorm that drenched the fan-favorite Vol Walk kept up until shortly before game time and Tennessee started out playing that way – all wet.
After one quarter, all the Vols had to show for their offensive effort was a 7-3 lead on Neal’s first score – the TD capped a 78-yard, 13-play opening drive that took 4:14 off the clock.
Tennessee was playing as if it forgot what it did against North Carolina State and didn’t think Georgia State offered much of a test. The Vols were right on both counts – for a while.
“We came out sluggish,” said Rivera, whose first touchdown pass of the season came on his 22nd birthday. “But we pushed on.”
After Georgia State place-kicker Christian Benvenuto’s second field goal, the Panthers’ only points until the final minute, the Vols rattled off 37 straight points and erased all doubts about the outcome.
“Tennessee’s execution was superb in the passing game when the game was still in question,” said Curry, who is 5-12-1 all-time against the Vols. “And they put us out of the game with their excellence in that regard.”
Just like the sunshine that broke through dark clouds, Bray flipped a switch on the Vols’ potent passing game. He hit Rivera on a 19-yard touchdown and then found Hunter twice – those two scored came less than three minutes apart – against a team in its third year of football.
After that second-quarter aerial assault the Vols opened a 28-6 halftime lead and Curry’s farewell tour stop – he’s retiring at season’s end – in Knoxville was over.
While the Panthers (0-2) took their lumps, they went back to Atlanta with a $500,000 paycheck for acting as the Vols’ warm-up act for next week’s visit by Florida to open the Southeastern Conference grind.
Florida (2-0) welcomed Texas A&M to the league on Saturday, beating the Aggies, 20-17, in College Station, Texas. The Gators have won seven straight from the Vols, with three of those setbacks in Neyland Stadium.
“They have a great defense and offense,” Bray said. “They had a good win today and we’ve had a couple of good wins, so it will be a good game.”
For the upstart Panthers, playing on natural grass for the third time, it was one of their worst losses, comparing closely to a 56-0 thrashing at Houston and a 63-7 shellacking at Alabama.
“It takes an awful lot to build a football team,” Curry said. “It’s pretty clear to me now that it’s considerably more than I thought.”
Curry is the first coach to battle Tennessee with four different teams – Georgia Tech, Alabama, Kentucky and, of course, Georgia State. He’s also the only coach to face Vince and Derek Dooley. Ironically, Curry’s first collegiate game as a player at Georgia Tech was against the Vols in 1961. His final game was against Vince Dooley’s Georgia Bulldogs.
Panthers quarterback Ben McLane, a freshman from Snellville, Ga., went 18-for-41 for 176 yards and scored the team’s only touchdown on a 12-yard run with 58 seconds remaining.
Donald Russell rushed for 68 yards on 15 carries, giving the Panthers 263 yards of total offense.
“It was definitely a big stage,” said McLane, who was sacked three times. “But once the game starts you’re playing, no matter if it’s 9,000 or 100,000. This is still just playing football.”
Albert Wilson had eight catches – four in each half – for 74 yards and said the Panthers came to Knoxville with a good amount of confidence.
“The whole team had an attitude that we were supposed to be here and win the game,” he said.
That was just wishful thinking.
Tennessee may not be a great team, but it’s 91-18-5 in home openers.
Georgia State 3 3 0 7 – 13
Tennessee 7 21 1310 – 51
TEN – Rajion Neal 1 run (Michael Palardy kick), 10:46
GSU – Christian Benvenuti FG 32, 4:06
TEN – Mychal Rivera 19 pass from Tyler Bray (Palardy kick), 10:58
GSU – FG Benvenuto 30, 5:37
TEN – Justin Hunter 25 pass from Bray (Palardy kick), 4:11
TEN – Hunter 11 pass from Bray (Palardy kick), 1:29
TEN – Neal 5 run (kick failed), 11:11
TEN – Hunter 19 pass from Bray (Palardy kick), 8:02
TEN – Derrick Brodus FG 25, 8:38
TEN – Quenshan Watson 2 run (Brodus kick), 5:47
GSU – Ben McLane 12 run (Benvenuto kick), 0:58
First Downs 22 27
Rushes-Yds. 41-87 43-184
Passing Yds. 186 374
Com.-Att.-Int. 18-41-1 22-28-1
Total Offense 263 558
Fumbles-Lost 7-1 2-1
Punts.-Avg. 8-44.8 2-33.0
Penalties-Yds. 4-35 6-57
RUSHING — Georgia State: Donald Russell 15-68, Rosevelt Watson 6-18, Albert Wilson 2-17, Parris Lee 2-11, Avery Sweeting 1-7, Travis Evans 3-3, Emmanuel Ogbuehi 1-minus 1, Team 1-minus 15, Ben McLane 10-minus 21; Tennessee: Rajion Neal 13-65, Devrin Young 8-46, Marlon Lane 8-31, Quenshan Watson 7-27, Cordarelle Patterson 1-18, Tyler Bray 1-4, Justin King 1-0, Team 4-minus 7.
PASSING — Georgia State: Ben McLane 18-41-1 176; Tennessee: Bray 18-20-0 310, Justin Worley 4-8-1 64 .
RECEIVING — Georgia State: Wilson 8-74, Jordan Giles 2-34, Russell 2-33, Nathaniel Minor 2-18, Lynquez Blair 1-7, Avery Sweeting 1-3, Emmanuel Ogbuehi 1-2; Tennessee: Justin Hunter 8-146, Mychal Rivera 4-70, Cordarelle Patterson 3-71, Jacob Carter 2-35, Watson 1-17, Devrin Young 2-11, Marlin Lane 1-12, Neal 1-12.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)