The first portion of the game looked like what every Tennessee fan hoped for Saturday night in Oxford.
The rest was what most feared.
The Vols (3-4, 0-3 SEC) jumped out to a 3-0 lead on No. 3 Ole Miss after a short Aaron Medley field goal got the Vols on the board at the 12:40 mark of the second quarter. It was all Rebels (7-0, 4-0) after that, as they proved their lofty ranking, rattling off 34 unanswered points to cruise to a 34-3 win in front of a crowd of over 63,000, the third-largest crowd in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium history.
Tennessee has now lost four straight games against FBS-level competition and hasn’t scored a touchdown in an SEC game since the 2:14 mark of the fourth quarter against Georgia on Sept. 27.
“We still have a lot to play for,” said Tennessee coach Butch Jones. “I already spoke to our football team about that. I talked to A.J. (Johnson) and told him his leadership would be evident this week and as the season continues to progress. I think that is keeping everything in perspective. It’s been a grind. We have been through the most difficult schedule in college football. We have to keep that in perspective.
“Tonight is still unacceptable. We have to move forward and keeping grinding.”
Some aspects of the loss were expected and understandable at this point for Tennessee. Others were simply inexcusable mistakes that will doom any team, regardless of the talent or experience gap.
The Vols turned it over four times. Senior quarterback Justin Worley served up three interceptions and true freshman kickoff returner Evan Berry coughed up a kickoff return. The Rebels cashed in quickly on two of those turnovers. Cornerback Senquez Golson’s interception at the 4:01 mark of the second quarter led to a quick 5-play, 35-yard drive and a touchdown for Ole Miss shortly before the end of the first half.
That gave the Rebels some breathing room at 14-3. If that was the spark that started the fire, Berry’s fumble was the gasoline that made it out of control. Making his first start as a kickoff returner in place of the injured Devrin Young, Berry had the ball knocked out around the 30-yard line and Ole Miss hoped on it at the 28 at the 1:56 mark of the third quarter. Quarterback Bo Wallace hit tight end Evan Engram – who was matched up against defensive end Corey Vereen – the next play for a 28-yard touchdown that gave the Rebels a commanding 24-3 edge.
“Again, turnovers were the story of the game,” Jones said. “All week long we talked about having to earn every yard we get and that this game would be a battle of field position.”
Tennessee’s offense, plagued by a beat-up and ineffective offensive line and a quarterback who made bad decisions, really found nothing that worked regularly all evening.
The Vols finished with zero rushing yards officially – becoming the first SEC team to fail to hit positive yardage since Florida did so against Georgia in 2011. Freshman running back Jalen Hurd had 40 yards on the ground, but the negatives from sacks and other ball carriers counter-balanced any gains.
Tennessee’s defense, which played well for most of the night, gave the Vols good field position early – allowing the Vols to start past their own 40 four times in the first 20 minutes of the game. UT mustered only one field goal from those opportunities.
“That always hurts,” said Worley, who finished the game 19-of-34 for 191 yards and was sacked seven times. “We had a short field several times and we couldn’t do much with it. We have to do a better job of capitalizing. We knew that was going to be a game of field position. They gave it to us early and we couldn’t do anything with it.”
Now the Vols move forward to conclude the brutal middle portion of their schedule with a home date against No. 7 Alabama next weekend, a team that looked thoroughly impressive on Saturday, dismantling Texas A&M 59-0. UT is looking for at least three more wins on a schedule that still has Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt left. It’ll be a challenge, but it’s what keeps the Vols grinding.
“We all know we have to step up,” added Worley. “Our season can’t end here in Oxford. All our dreams and goals are still alive. We have to do a good job of rallying and sticking together and get ready for this next week.”
• Tackle Jacob Gilliam, who tore his ACL in the season opener against Utah State, returned on Saturday, playing on the torn ligament. He saw some action at right tackle after Coleman Thomas left the game with an injury.
• Left guard Marcus Jackson also left the game with an injury and did not return. He was replaced by redshirt freshman Austin Sanders.
• Worley was pulled from the game in the fourth quarter after landing hard on his shoulder, though he expects to play next week.
• Senior linebacker A.J. Johnson surpassed 400 tackles for his career in the game