KNOXVILLE — It’s been a roller-coaster season for the Tennessee offense. Especially the passing game.
The first half of Saturday night’s contest against Memphis, however, was as good as it gets.
In the first 30 minutes of football, the Volunteers reached the end zone on six of seven possessions en route to a 56-28 shellacking of the Tigers.
Quarterback Jonathan Crompton finished with 331 yards and five touchdowns — both career highs — on 21-of-27 passing, surpassing the 310 yards he put up in last month’s 45-19 rout of Georgia. Yet at halftime, Crompton already had 305 yards on 19-of-24 passing with four scoring strikes.
“We knew they had 12 days to game plan for us and knew they were going to do something to try and stop the run,” the QB said.
In September, Crompton led the Southeastern Conference in interceptions thrown. He now heads into the final stretch of the regular season leading the league in touchdowns (21).
Tennessee (5-4) had 382 total yards at halftime and held Memphis (2-7) to 20 net yards until the Tigers marshaled a late scoring drive right before the break.
The orange onslaught started on the opening kickoff, which David Oku fielded on the bounce and returned 69 yards.
Tennessee responded with its first TD march, ending when Bryce Brown punched it in from a yard out.
Otherwise, it was Crompton’s show. Four of the next five drives ended with a Crompton TD pass, each to a different receiver. Gerald Jones (17 yards), Luke Stocker (23), Quintin Hancock (4) and Nu’Keese Richardson (14) all got in on the act.
Crompton took it in himself on a 1-yard plunge with four seconds left, as the Vols quickly answered Memphis’ lone TD of the half.
Even when something went right for Memphis in the first half, UT capitalized. Dennis Rogan muffed a second-quarter punt and Memphis recovered deep in Tennessee turf, but Eric Berry intercepted a tipped ball while Memphis was on the cusp of the red zone. Berry zigged and zagged looking for daylight but only had a 7-yard return — leaving him 8 shy of the NCAA record for interception return yardage.
“I actually thought he broke the record,” Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin said. “I told the team last night he was going to break the record today.”
The Vols also created their own breaks through ruthless strategy.
Kiffin went for an onside kick after UT’s second TD and recovered, but an offsides penalty negated the play and Chad Cunningham kicked deep on the second take.
Tennessee also went for it on fourth down three times, and tried a halfback pass and a receiver pass. All part of a designed message by Kiffin to his players.
“It was so they felt the coaches were being very aggressive so we didn’t come out and have a letdown game after we had such a big game last week,” Kiffin said.
“An onside kick or a fumble, that gives the offense a jolt of energy,” Stocker said. “A lot of good things happen from that.”
Enough good things that the Vols had an overwhelming 42-7 lead and victory essentially in hand before the Pride of the Southland Band took the field for its halftime show.
The second half started in similar fashion for Memphis, which fumbled away the ball on its own 30 and soon gave up yet another score — when Denarius Moore successfully performed a juggling act on Crompton’s offering.
Once the starters gave way to the reserves, things got more adventurous. Tennessee’s second- string defense was porous and erratic, yielding 299 yards and three touchdowns.
“They don’t get many live reps,” Vols linebacker LaMarcus Thompson said of the backups. “They just have to gain a little more experience.”
The Tigers played their starting offense for the entirety and went no-huddle for most of the second half. Curtis Steele had 144 rushing yards and a pair of TDs.
“We lost the fourth quarter for the first time all year, which is depressing to see,” Kiffin said. “No excuses. We need to finish better.”
Nick Stephens finished for Crompton, taking over midway through the third period. He completed 5 of 9 passes for 98 yards with a TD to Moore, who finished with seven catches for 76 yards.
Herman Lathers led the Vols in tackles, making his first career start at middle linebacker. The first-team defense wasn’t hindered by the absence of free safety Janzen Jackson, who sat out for what Kiffin called an administrative suspension.
Jackson will be back next week.