KNOXVILLE – It was supposed to be an opportunity for Tennessee to move past a disappointing Florida loss, and to get ready for a challenging SEC stretch coming over the next month.
Instead, the Vols (3-1, 0-1 SEC) found themselves battling Akron, a team that had lost 22 of it last 23 games against FBS opponents, into the fourth quarter before pulling away late for a 47-26 win.
A two-play sequence midway through the fourth quarter finally put Tennessee in command after struggling against the Zips most of the night. An interception by nickel back Eric Gordon gave the Vols the ball on the Akron 19-yard line with 9:03 remaining. Quarterback Tyler Bray then found receiver Justin Hunter for a 19-yard touchdown strike on the ensuing play to put the Vols up 40-26.
It was the first two-score lead of the night for Tennessee, which came into the game favored by 33 points.
“What I’m proud of is that we had so many things go wrong in the first half, and then we came out and dominated in the second half,” coach Derek Dooley said.
Bray later added a 24-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jacob Carter to reach the final margin of victory.
Giving up big plays again plagued Tennessee. Akron running back Quentin Hines ripped the UT secondary for a 70-yard touchdown run to give the Zips (1-3) a 23-20 lead with two minutes left before halftime. Zips’ cornerback Avis Commack also intercepted Bray on the Vols’ first possession and raced 44 yards to put Akron up 7-0 in front of a stunned crowd of 81,719 at Neyland Stadium.
“It was a tough game, and I knew it would be,” Dooley said. “The disappointing thing was the turnovers early in the game spotted them 10 points. That big run was really disappointing; we just screwed it up.”
While the defense struggled at times, the offense put up 633 total yards. Bray finished the game 27-of-43 passing (62.8 percent) for 401 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. Junior running back Rajion Neal had a career-high 22 carries for 151 yards. He added three receptions for 22 yards and a touchdown. Hunter finished the game with eight catches for 115 yards and a score.
“He made a lot of mistakes early on,” Dooley said of Bray. “He settled in later, had a good demeanor. I was really proud of him … They came out and did a bunch of goofy stuff on defense we’ve never seen.”
Brodus settles in at kicker: After missing an extra point last week, kicker Derrick Brodus redeemed himself Saturday, making all five of his extra points and adding four field goals – 37, 23, 22 and 28 yards.
“I didn’t want to hammer him for one extra point,” Dooley said. “I thought he deserved another shot. He had four field goals – those were big. The kicking deal was good.”
Akron kicker Robert Stein had an impressive night as well despite coming into the game with only two field goals on the season. He hit two extra points and hit all four of his field-goal attempts.
Big night for Moore: Safety Byron Moore came into the game with just one career interception, but he had two on Saturday.
“Coach Sal (Sunseri) just put us in the right call,” Moore said. “I was able to be in the right spot and made the play.”
He also finished second on the defense with 10 tackles and added a deflected pass to his stat line.
• Tennessee used three different players as a Wildcat quarterback – wide receiver Pig Howard, linebacker A.J. Johnson and fullback Justin King. Johnson had a two-yard touchdown run, while King added an 18-yard carry out of the formation.
• Reserve tight end Brendan Downs caught his first career touchdown pass, a six-yard reception from Bray in the second quarter. Downs played a larger role after only playing a few snaps last week against Florida in his first game back from after dislocating his patella in mid-August.
• Bray moved past former Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton (2006-09) for sixth place on UT’s career pass completions list. Bray is up to 366 in his career.
• Tennessee is now 13-1 all-time against teams from Ohio. The Vols haven’t lost a game to a team from the Buckeye State since they fell 35-0 to Cincinnati in 1904.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.