KNOXVILLE — Tennessee demonstrated strong special teams play through the first three contests of the 2009 football season.
For the first time in the Lane Kiffin administration, during Saturday’s 34-23 win against Ohio at Neyland Stadium, the Volunteers’ kicking game was exposed as vulnerable.
A 95-yard kickoff return by Chris Garrett immediately helped the Bobcats tie the game at 7-all after an 11-yard touchdown run by Montario Hardesty put the Vols on the board.
Garrett took the ball, found a seam in the middle of the field and dashed into the end zone well clear of the nearest member of the UT kick coverage team.
It marked the first kickoff return for a touchdown surrendered by Tennessee since a 99-yard kickoff return by Georgia’s Thomas Brown in 2006.
SENDING A MESSAGE: Dennis Rogan had established himself as a key contributor in the secondary and probably the most reliable return man on punts for the Vols.
Against Ohio, he was suspended for what Kiffin called an administrative reason.
“We talk about doing the things right and everybody doing them,” Kiffin said. “When people are selfish and don’t do the little things right, they don’t play. And it affects their team. We missed him today out there.
“The moral of the story is do things right off the field, and then you’ll be able to play.”
LONG TIME COMING: Jonathan Crompton’s 3-yard scoring strike to Brandon Warren on the final play of the first quarter ended a lengthy drought for Tennessee’s fifth-year senior quarterback.
Crompton had not thrown a TD pass since the 13:21 mark of the fourth quarter in a 63-7 win over Western Kentucky that opened the season.
BUTTER FINGERS: There was a wild exchange of possession toward the tail end of the first quarter.
Garrett ran for 4 yards before a hit by UT linebacker Rico McCoy knocked the ball loose. Vols safety Janzen Jackson recovered, but tried an apparent lateral to Eric Berry as he was tackled and lost possession. Ohio offensive lineman Cole Bunner recovered at the Bobcats’ own 7-yard line.
The play was reviewed, and Kiffin made a demonstrative protest, but the call was upheld.
The ensuing possession by Ohio went nowhere, and Nu’Keese Richardson’s 21-yard return of the subsequent punt set up the Vols with a first-and-10 at the Ohio 30 that led to a scoring drive.
DON’T WALK: Rainy weather forced cancellation of the Vol Walk prior to the game, though the rain did clear out by kickoff.
It was the first time weather nixed the traditional walk since Sept. 23, 2006, when UT had homecoming against Marshall. At the time, that was the first instance anyone could remember that a Vol Walk had been canceled since the practice was instituted in 1965.
OLD SCHOOL: The 1969 Tennessee team was honored at midfield before the game began.
Rye Cove High School coach Tom Callaway, a senior on that squad, was among the players who attended.
Phillip Fulmer did not attend. He’s got a gig working for CBS College Sports on football Saturdays.
FRESH STARTS: A handful of Vols made their first career start on Saturday night.
Greg King started at strong-side linebacker in place of Lamarcus Thompson, who hurt his back in last week’s 23-13 loss at Florida.
Andre Mathis got the call at defensive tackle next to Dan Williams. Mathis started in place of Wes Brown, who’s been fighting knee problems throughout the season.
Richardson started at wide receiver. Quintin Hancock was out with a jaw injury.
Aaron Douglas, as expected, started at right offensive tackle. Jarrod Shaw was the starter at that position in the first three ballgames.
Cory Sullins started at left guard in the absence of Vladimir Richard.
EXTRA POINTS: Three fans ran on the field just before an Ohio field goal attempt with 6:40 remaining in the third period. They made it all the way across the field before law enforcement and security got hold of them. … Daniel Lincoln’s 49-yard field goal in the fourth period marked a new career long for UT’s junior placekicker.