Dooley's gamble pays off

One week after taking a fashion risk by wearing bright orange pants to Tennessee's opener, head coach Derek Dooley took an even bigger risk Saturday at Neyland Stadium. It worked, spurring the Vols to a 45-23 defeat of Cincinnati.

Mere moments after a first-quarter Tennessee touchdown tied the score at 7-7, Dooley rolled the dice by calling for an onsides kick. With Cincinnati's front men playing back, Vol kicker Michael Palardy dribbled the ball 11 yards forward and recovered it himself at the Tennessee 41-yard line. Five plays later Tyler Bray hit Justin Hunter with a 33-yard touchdown pass for a 14-7 lead.

Asked to explain his uncharacteristic gamble, Dooley said: "We go into every game with stuff to try and generate some plays with special teams. Palardy has great execution; we practiced it a lot."

The onsides kick had an element of desperation in it, too. Given that Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead rambled 65 yards to score on the game's third scrimmage play, Dooley felt his team needed a big lift before giving the ball back to the Bearcats.

"Their first drive the guy goes 60-some yards and runs all over us," the Vol coach said. "Then we score, so I just wanted to keep a little momentum going. It worked, so that was a good way to flip the momentum."

Not to be outdone, Bearcat head man Butch Jones tried a couple of second-quarter gambles. Trailing 21-14, he elected to go for it on fourth-and-inches at midfield. Vol tackle Mo Couch stuffed Pead for a one-yard loss but Tennessee failed to convert the break when Palardy misfired on a 43-yard field goal try.

Jones gambled again, however, and this time it cost him. Facing a fourth-and-one at Tennessee's 46-yard line with five minutes left to halftime, he again elected to go for the first down. Quarterback Zach Collaros was thrown for a loss by Vol safety Brent Brewer, however, and Tennessee took over on downs for the second time in the quarter. Nine plays later Da' Rick Rogers made a great catch of a ball thrown behind him, and the 15-yard TD put Tennessee on top 28-14.

"The two fourth-and-one stops at midfield were giant plays to allow us to pull away," Dooley said. "Those are like turnovers. People don't realize how big those are. It's not just the stop; it's the field position."

Hunter, who caught five balls for 107 yards in the first quarter alone, closed the half by deflecting a 47-yard field-goal attempt by Cincy's Tony Milano, preserving the Vols' two-TD margin.

The second half was more of the same as the Bearcats simply had no answers for Tennessee's explosive passing attack. The Vols took the third-quarter kickoff and went 70 yards in 10 plays – Bray scoring on a sneak – to go up 35-14.

Tennessee essentially sealed the win moments later, forcing Cincinnati to settle for a field goal after marching to a first-and-goal at the Vol 1-yard line. The 35-17 lead swelled to 42-17 shortly thereafter when Bray hit Zach Rogers with a 16-yard scoring strike to cap an 11-play, 71-yard drive.

Cincinnati got a short-field touchdown after recovering a fourth-quarter Rajion Neal fumble at the Vol 22-yard line, then Palardy closed the scoring by nailing a 37-yard field goal with 1:44 remaining.

Cincinnati looked unstoppable early, going 80 yards in three plays on its first possession and 80 yards in five plays on its second en route to 14 first-quarter points.

"They had us on our heels," Dooley admitted.

After allowing 160 yards and 14 points on the visitors' first eight snaps, however, Tennessee's defense stiffened a bit. Cincinnati rolled up 249 yards in the first two quarters but managed just 147 in the last two. Dooley said the defensive adjustment was pretty simple.

"The adjustment was tackling," the coach wisecracked. "And we lined up wrong. So let's line up right and tackle. Those were the adjustments: Line up where you're supposed to line up, not where you want to line up, and when the runner takes off tackle him."

Whereas Tennessee eventually slowed Cincinnati, the Bearcats never slowed the Vols. Bray finished 34-of-41 passing for a career-best 405 yards and four touchdowns. He now has thrown multiple TD passes eight games in a row, breaking the school record set in 1997 by Peyton Manning.

Hunter and Rogers weren't too shabby, either. The former caught 10 passes for 156 yards and the latter 10 balls for 100 yards, marking the first time in program history two Vols have recorded double-digit receptions in the same game. In addition, each posted a 100-yard receiving performance for the second game in a row.

Critics will note that Tennessee's ground game managed just 126 yards but that was largely because the air attack was working so well.

"It isn't rocket science," Dooley said. "We've got a quarterback who can throw it and two big guys who can go get it, so we'll keep throwing it to 'em until somebody stops us."

Bray said the offensive Vols were "locked in that zone today," adding that watching brilliant performances by Hunter and Rogers is becoming routine for him.

"Nothing they do surprises me anymore," he said. "They're great players."

Tennessee dominated statistically, piling up 34 first downs and 531 total yards to Cincinnati's 18 first downs and 396 yards. The Vols were 10 of 13 on third-down conversions while limiting the Bearcats to 5 of 12 on third downs and 0 of 2 on fourth downs. Tennessee posted a 15-minute advantage in time of possession, too, keeping the ball 37:23 to Cincinnati's 22:37.

"I'm really proud of the team," Dooley said. "They showed a lot of improvement from last week but we've got to get ready for Big Ball (Game 3 at Florida) next week."

Vol wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers celebrates a touchdown after taking a tough hit from the Bearcats. Photo by Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com


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