KNOXVILLE — Ideally, Tennessee’s football team intended to come out of Saturday night’s game against Ohio having established a couple more playmakers on offense and gaining confidence before entering the meat of the Southeastern Conference season.
The Volunteers left Neyland Stadium with a 34-23 win, but arguably more questions than answers.
Inconsistency plagued Tennessee on both sides of the ball, and the Vols had a significant breakdown in special teams as well.
“As bad as we feel that we didn’t play better, we’d feel a lot worse if we didn’t win,” coach Lane Kiffin said.
The Vols leaned on their passing game early, but went primarily to the run in the second half against a pesky Bobcats team that never went away. In the process, Tennessee sustained a slew of injuries that pressed several backups into service on defense. Monte Kiffin’s defense surrendered a season-high 340 yards — yes, even more than top-ranked Florida amassed. But it was the shortcomings on offense at the end of the game that had Lane Kiffin in a controlled fury.
The Vols had the ball with less than two minutes to go, but Montario Hardesty was stuffed for no gain on third-and-4 and Ohio got the ball back.
“There’s no way you have a team in our place, favored as much as we are, have a chance to put the game away … there’s no way the defense should go back on the field,” Lane Kiffin said. “It’s ridiculous.”
The night certainly started out well for Tennessee (2-2), which drove for a touchdown on the opening possession of the game. Hardesty’s 11-yard run capped a nine-play, 69-yard drive and staked UT to a 7-0 lead.
It didn’t last. Ohio’s Chris Garrett ran back the ensuing kickoff 95 yards to the house to help tie the game.
After Jonathan Crompton’s pass was deflected and picked off on UT’s next possession, Ohio QB Theo Scott hit LaVon Brazill on a 2-yard scoring strike with 7:08 showing in the opening period.
Just like that, the 24-point underdog Bobcats held a 14-7 lead.
Tennessee rallied. Crompton hit Brandon Warren on a short TD pass on the final play of the first period to help tie the game, and the Vols went ahead for good in the second quarter. Ohio was pinned deep in its own territory, and UT defensive end Chris Walker intercepted a pass by Scott and returned it 7 yards for his first career TD.
Walker said he figured it was going to be just a regular third-down rush until he saw the tight end drifting.
“I knew something was up,” Walker said.
A back injury forced Walker to the sidelines for the majority of the second half. By then, he had plenty of company. Linebacker LaMarcus Thompson (back) and defensive tackle Wes Brown (knee) both started against Florida but were held out Saturday, while defensive back Dennis Rogan was suspended. Receiver Marsalis Teague also did not play the second half because of an injury. None of the ailments was more serious, or potentially damaging to the team long term, than what looks to be a season-ending knee injury sustained by middle linebacker Nick Reveiz.
“It hurts because he’s got to work so hard for everything,” fellow linebacker Rico McCoy said of the former walk-on. “For something like that to happen to him, you’ve got to feel for the guy. Even if you don’t know him, you’ve got to feel for a guy like that.”
By the fourth quarter, the Vols had five true freshmen playing on the defense. But that didn’t matter to Lane Kiffin.
“We looked like a different defense today than what you’re used to seeing,” UT’s coach said. “We’ve got to make plays, it doesn’t matter who’s in there. There’s no excuses. We’ve got to play better.”
The Vols’ running game pulled a disappearing act of its own in the first half. After throwing it 28 times before intermission, though, UT went back to the ground game, amassing 132 of its 177 rushing yards following the break.
Hardesty finished with 140 rushing yards, pushing his per game average to 121.3.
Crompton had his moments. In the first quarter, he executed a gutsy fourth-and-short play-action pass to give the Vols a first-and-goal, and capped the drive with the short TD to Warren. Crompton also gigged the Bobcats’ defense in the third quarter, drawing a blitz and then finding Bryce Brown on a screen pass that went for a 26-yard touchdown.
Field goals let Ohio hang around, while Daniel Lincoln’s field goals let UT keep some breathing room.
The Vols also caught a huge break. Early in the fourth frame, Crompton rolled out, was sacked and lost the ball. Ohio linebacker Alphonso Lewis scooped it up for an apparent touchdown, but replays showed he stepped out of bounds before picking up the pigskin.
Crompton finished 17-of-34 for 222 yards.