KNOXVILLE – Tennessee’s defensive struggles have been well documented this season.
Despite all the problems the Vols (4-5, 0-5 SEC) have faced, they hit a new low on Saturday in a 55-48 win over Troy.
The Trojans (4-5) piled up an astonishing 721 yards of total offense, a record the Vols didn’t want to set on Saturday. Troy rushed for 225 yards, threw for 496 and converted 10 of 19 third-down attempts against the much-maligned Tennessee defense.
“Well, it’s a bad defense,” an exasperated Derek Dooley said after the game. “You know, we play single high, and they run by our corners. They run over the top. We play split safety, they dink it or they run the ball on a draw. Just didn’t really have an answer for anything.”
Indeed, Tennessee is running out of ways to fix the defense. The Vols have run every coverage in the playbook and have even tried personnel changes. True freshman cornerback Daniel Gray got his first career start in place of senior Prentiss Waggner, but Gray was beat for multiple deep passes and had a costly pass interference call go against him.
Troy, a team that came into the game 1-14 all-time against SEC teams, had extraordinary success moving the ball against the Vols. The Trojans’ previous record for points against an SEC opponent was 34 against Georgia in 2007. They sprinted past that total on their way to putting 48 on the board in Knoxville.
“It all begins with coaching,” Dooley said. “I think the biggest thing, no matter what, the ultimate objective is to win the game. At some point, you’ve got to get stops. We had a lot of problems, obviously, but you’ve got to go play the next play. That’s all you can do.”
Linebacker Curt Maggitt, who finished the game with five tackles, said the players deserve blame as well.
“I think the defense is pretty simply,” he said. “Coach Sal (Sunseri) is doing the best he can. It is on us. We just have to go out there and execute.”
If there is any kind of silver lining on this historically bad day for the defense, it’s that it was able to stop Troy on two of the final five drives of the game. The Trojans held a 48-41 lead with just more than three minutes remaining, but the Vols answered with a score and then got another quick stop to set up the eventual game-winning nine-yard touchdown run from running back Marlin Lane.
“That’s the reason we won,” Dooley said of the defense tightening up in the final minutes. “At some point you have to make a stop, and it took us a while to do that. Great job finding a way to win and we survived.”
Injury update: Right guard Zach Fulton (ankle) returned to the starting lineup after missing last week. Running back Rajion Neal (ankle) did not start, but he played limited snaps in his return from a two-week absence. He had seven carries for 32 yards and two touchdowns to go along with a 23-yard touchdown reception.
Running back/return specialist Devrin Young missed the game with a concussion he sustained this week at practice. Wide receiver Justin Hunter returned punts, while freshman Pig Howard took Young's spot on kickoff returns. Defensive end Trevarris Saulsberry left the game favoring his left leg and did not return.
Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson had to get an IV at halftime to help with exhaustion. He returned in the second half.
Record watch: Several records were set or challenged. Here’s a list of some of the most important ones:
• The teams combined for 1,439 yards of total offense, the most ever in a game involving Tennessee.
• Tennessee gave up 721 yards of total offense to Troy, the most the Vols have given up in school history.
• The Vols also gained 718 total yards of offense, another school record.
• Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray threw for a school-record 530 yards. That’s the second most ever by an SEC quarterback. Former Georgia quarterback Eric Zeier threw for 544 yards against Southern Mississippi in 1993. Former Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray owned the school record with 523 against Kentucky in 1997.
• Tennessee wide receivers Cordarelle Patterson and Justin Hunter combined for 400 yards receiving, the most ever by a Tennessee duo in one game.
• The 103 combined points were the fourth-most ever in a game involving an SEC team.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.