KNOXVILLE – The Vols looked to be in trouble Saturday night when they went into halftime against Akron, a 33-point underdog, tied at 23. It remained a close game into the fourth quarter, where the Vols finally showed their superior depth and talent and pulled away for a 47-26 win.
Here’s a full report card from the Vols’ performance Saturday night:
The numbers were there. Tyler Bray threw for more than 400 yards and four touchdowns. However, a bad interception and return for a touchdown on the first drive gave Akron a 7-0 lead and some confidence for the rest of the game. Tennessee stalled too many times in the red zone, forcing four field-goal attempts. It wasn’t a bad game for Bray, but he’d like to have a few of his throws back.
Running backs: A-
Most of the credit goes to Rajion Neal here. He had a career night with 22 carries for 151 yards to go along with a receiving touchdown. He ran hard, and broke some tackles on the second- and third level of the Akron defense – something he has failed to do with consistency this season. Marlin Lane showed some burst in mop-up duty, carrying nine times for 47 yards. The Vols tried to get freshman Quenshaun Watson some early looks, but he couldn’t get much going, finishing the game with just six yards on eight carries.
Wide receivers/tight ends: B
Justin Hunter continues to show why he’s one of the top receivers in the nation. He hauled in eight passes for 115 yards. Zach Rogers finished the game with three catches for 72 yards, but also had two inexcusable drops. Eight others contributed at least one catch, including tight end Mychal Rivera, who had two grabs for 43 yards. Cordarrelle Patterson, despite often being single covered, was unusually quiet with just two grabs for 20 yards.
Offensive line: B +
The Vols had seven linemen get a fair amount of playing time on Saturday – Ja’Wuan James, Zach Fulton, James Stone, Dallas Thomas, Tiny Richardson, Alex Bullard and Marcus Jackson. Dooley said he feels confident in all seven and considers them all starters. This unit paved some holes for Neal and didn’t give up any sacks. They’re not where Dooley wants them yet, but there’s been progress since 2011 here.
Defensive line: C
This was a tough game for the defensive line to excel. Akron used four or five receivers regularly and threw the ball quickly, making it tough for the defensive line to do much damage. Defensive end Darrington Sentimore made the most plays with four tackles and a sack. Overall, the group just didn’t disrupt Akron’s offense as much as it could have.
A.J. Johnson led the team with 11 tackles, but, like last week, he failed to be in position to make a stop on a lengthy scoring play. He took the blame in his postgame interview for Akron’s 70-yard touchdown run. Senior Herman Lathers played limited snaps with a shoulder that’s still not 100 percent. The Vols are probably saving him as much as possible for the SEC run.
There was good and some bad from this group. Three interceptions – two from safety Byron Moore and one from cornerback Eric Gordon – certainly helped the Vols. Akron still managed to rack up 229 yards through the air, paced by receiver Marquelo Suel’s 12 receptions. The Zips found a soft spot in the middle of the field and exploited it for several easy receptions. Though none of the defensive backs could make a tackle on Akron’s 70-yard run, they did not give up any massive plays through the air.
Special teams: B+
Kicker Derrick Brodus was perfect on his extra points and hit four short field goals. The kicking game still isn’t a strength, but the Vols have to feel better about putting Brodus in to make a pressure kick going forward. The return game was solid, though not spectacular. Kick and punt coverage was also good. Michael Palardy kicking a kickoff out of bounds was one noticeable error in this area.
This staff will take the win, but Akron simply was not a great team and the Vols shouldn’t have struggled like they did. Some of the third-down play calling on both sides of the ball was suspect, and overall the Vols didn’t look incredibly focused in the first half. Credit them for getting the run game going, and for dominating the fourth quarter. Overall, it felt more like a small step back rather than progress for a Tennessee team preparing to face Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama and South Carolina in its next four games.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.