The common denominator the past two games was freshman Tyler Bray. After completing 19 of 33 passes for 325 yards and five touchdowns last weekend, he virtually matched those numbers in start No. 2 – going 18 of 34 for 323 yards and three TDs.
Bray's day started with a scare, however. That first pass was batted by Ole Miss linebacker Jonathan Cornell. Fortunately for the Vols, the deflection blooped five yards forward to Vol freshman Justin Hunter, who outran the Rebel secondary to complete an 80-yard touchdown play.
"It was a little lucky," Dooley conceded, "but you create your luck. Justin ran fast and he reacted to the ball. Things like that happen for you and against you. That was just one play … but it is nice to get a little juice going early."
Apparently so. Spurred by the first-play score, the Vols rolled to a 31-14 halftime lead. They put the game away on Ole Miss' second scrimmage play of the third quarter, when Prentiss Waggner picked off a Jeremiah Masoli pass at the Ole Miss 10-yard line and returned it for a touchdown. Waggner now has three interception-return TDs this season, a school record.
Bray's receivers deserve considerable credit for his gaudy passing stats. In addition to his 80-yard TD off the first-play deflection, Hunter had a spectacular 23-yard scoring grab on which he soared above two well-positioned Rebel defensive backs to make the catch. He finished with 114 yards and two touchdowns on just three catches.
"Justin's a special player, and he made some special plays," Dooley said of the 6-foot-4 freshman. "Those guys (Rebels) were blitzing a lot and giving us a lot of opportunity in man coverage, and that was our plan: We were going to throw it up there to the tall guy when they challenged us, and it worked."
Senior wideout Denarius Moore had a big game, too. His four-catch, 88-yard performance featured a 17-yard touchdown reception against tight coverage.
With Tennessee unable to move the Rebels' massive defensive front, Vol tailback Tauren Poole got just three carries for 7 net yards in the first half. Bray picked up the slack, however, passing for 265 first-half yards.
"We knew going in it was going to be tough (to run), so we thought we'd chuck it around and see what happened," Dooley said. "We just ran the ball to rest the wideouts."
Bray's first-half success throwing the ball loosened up the Ole Miss defense, allowing Poole to rush for 100 second-half yards and finish with 107.
Masoli, the first-team All-Pac 10 quarterback at Oregon last fall, struggled mightily. He finished just 7 of 18 passing for 80 yards with two pick-six interceptions. Brandon Bolden rushed 12 times for 113 yards to lead the Rebels, now 4-6 overall and 1-5 in SEC play.
Two stats probably explain Tennessee's big win quite eloquently. The Vols won the turnover margin 5-0 and they converted 7 of 16 third-down tries, while limiting Ole Miss to 2 of 12.
"The key every week is the turnovers … it always is," Dooley said. "Any time you're plus-5 in turnovers you're probably going to win the game. That was great."
Tennessee's start was great, too. Hunter's 80-yard catch/run and Moore's 17-yard scoring catch gave the Big Orange a 14-0 lead with 3:53 still to play in the first quarter.
The Vols' beleaguered secondary came through next. Redshirt freshman cornerback Eric Gordon anticipated a quick out, stepped in front to intercept, then raced 46 yards for a TD that put Tennessee on top 21-0 with 2:33 left in the opening quarter.
Ole Miss closed to 21-7 when Bolden scored from 17 yards out on the first play of the second quarter but the Vols retaliated immediately – Hunter's leaping 23-yard TD catch bumping the lead to 28-7 with 6:35 left in the half.
Ole Miss closed to 28-14, however, on a four-play 59-yard drive, capped by a two-yard Bolden run. Tennessee regained the momentum, though, on a 43-yard Daniel Lincoln field goal with 56 seconds left in the half. The field goal was Lincoln's eighth in eight attempts this fall.
The Vols, known for their second-half collapses in September and October, didn't collapse this time. Instead, they piled on 21 more points, turning the 31-14 halftime cushion into a mind-boggling 52-14 romp.
"I'm really proud of ‘em … how they've come out these past two weeks," Dooley said. "We had our best week of practice, and I think it showed."
Suddenly, a Tennessee team that was given up for dead after consecutive lopsided losses to Georgia (41-14) and Alabama (41-10) dropped its record to 2-6, is carrying a 4-6 mark and looking very much alive.
"We're gaining a little confidence," Dooley said. "They played aggressively. They played fast. It was just a phenomenal team win."