KNOXVILLE – Tennessee (5-7, 1-7 SEC) wrapped up an overall disappointing 2012 campaign with a 37-17 win over Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC) on Saturday.
Under the watch of interim head coach Jim Chaney, the offense returned to its normal form after a down week at Vanderbilt last week and the defense allowed a season-low points total to an FBS opponent.
Here’s a full report card from the Vols’ performance Saturday:
Tyler Bray bounced back in a big way from his tough day at Vanderbilt. He completed 20-of-34 attempts for 293 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He made good reads, protected the football and was in complete command of the offense. If that was the last game he plays for the Vols, it was a pretty good one. Backup Justin Worley got some mop-up duty but did not attempt any passes.
Running backs: B
Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal combined for 128 yards on just 19 carries. No Tennessee running back found the end zone, but they ran hard and got what they could all afternoon. Redshirt senior fullback Ben Bartholomew got his first opportunity to carry the ball in his career in the fourth quarter.
Wide receivers/tight ends: A-
Nine players caught at least one pass, so Bray spread it around. Tight end Mychal Rivera led the way with five catches for 64 yards and a touchdown. He wrapped up the best ever season for a Tennessee tight end with 562 receiving yards. Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and Zach Rogers each had a touchdown reception. Patterson had another big night with 158 all-purpose yards (88 receiving, 38 rushing, 32 kick returns).
Offensive line: A
It gave Bray time to throw all afternoon and only gave up one sack. It paved some huge holes for the running backs against a Kentucky defense that has some decent players in its front seven. Four of the five starters will probably be back in 2013, but left guard Dallas Thomas will be missed.
Defensive line: B-
Daniel McCullers recorded his first career sack. Defensive end Maurice Couch recoded four tackles. Junior defensive end Daniel Hood got his first start of the season. There were a few breakdowns, but Kentucky didn’t gash this group like many others have this season.
A.J. Johnson led the way in tackles with 14 and finishes the season as the top tackler in the SEC during the regular season (11.5 per game). He also recorded his first career sack and added a two-yard touchdown run out of the Wildcat on offense. He led the team in tackles (138) and rushing touchdowns (6) this season. Jordan Williams had five tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack despite missing a perfect opportunity for a second sack when he let Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles out of his grasp.
Kentucky’s passing isn’t very good. Still, freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow was able to nearly double his previous season high in passing with 225 yards through the air. It struggled to cover Kentucky senior receiver La’Rod King, who finished the game with 10 receptions. To its credit, it did tighten up in the second half and prevent the massive play that has plagued the Vols all season. This group will greatly benefit from the return of Brian Randolph (ACL) next season.
Special teams: B
Kicker Michael Palardy hit a low extra-point attempt that was blocked, but he did make a 33-yard field goal. He had a solid day punting, hitting five for an average of 42.6 yards per punt with four downed inside the 20. Receiver Jacob Carter was alert on a surprise onside-kick attempt from the Wildcats, recoveromg it and running it back 15 yards to set the Vols up with great field position.
It wasn’t perfect, but overall, it was a great job by Chaney and the rest of the staff to motivate the Vols enough to pull out their first SEC win of the season. The Vols had the clear talent edge over Kentucky, but the total effort and focus level was higher than it was in their 41-18 loss to Vanderbilt last week. The offense was crisp, the defense looked somewhat competent and the overall game management went smoothly despite having a first-time head coach in charge.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.