As a result of his individual heroics, Tennessee shook off a first half hang over left over from its loss to Florida last week and finally shook off Rutgers for a 35-14 victory.
The Vols found themselves down 7-0 just 20 seconds into the contest after Nathan Jones took the opening kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown. Rutgers made that lead stand up through the half, as 41-point favorite Tennessee trailed 14-7 at intermission Ð compiling only 12 total yards in the first 30 minutes of play.
However in the second half, Tennessee spread its offense using four wide receivers with three one side of the field and Washington split out by himself on the other side. The alignment forced Rutgers into more man coverage and Washington took advantage by catching three straight passes for 66 yards to put UT in business at the Rutgers 13. On the next play, tight end Jason Witten worked himself free in the corner of the end zone and Casey Clausen laid the pass on the money for the touchdown. Alex Walls added the extra point and less than two minutes into the second half the Vols tied the game.
Less than three minutes later, Troy Fleming took a delay up the middle for a 16-yard TD and the Vols first lead of the game 21-14.
At the 12:48 mark of the fourth quarter, Washington caught a simple out route and turned it up the sideline for a 58-yard touchdown which put the Vols in control, 28-14.
The standout performance by the outspoken sophomore is sure to improve relationships with some of his teammates who were publicly questioning his commitment to the team after the Vols 30-13 defeat in the rain last Saturday. Washington was Tennessee's most potent offensive weapon against the Gators with seven catches for 102 yards, but his penchant for self-promotion made him at easy target for criticism.
Against Rutgers, Washington accounted for over half of Tennessee's 378-yard total and more than two-thirds of its 284 passing yards. He was also on the receiving end of nearly half of Clausen's 15 completion's in 28 attempts and opened up numerous opportunities for his teammates. Derrick Tinsley took advantage of Rutgers preoccupation with Washington, catching a career-high four passes for 46 yards and a 16-yard touchdown.
Tennessee's final touchdown was scored by Jabari Davis on a four-yard run with only 1:41 remaining in the game as the Vols came away with some momentum going into a stretch of SEC games vs. Arkansas, at Georgia, Alabama and at South Carolina.
"I was proud of the way our football team fought back in the second half," said Coach Phillip Fulmer. "We wanted to get some of our swagger back and I think we did that."
The Rutgers game also proved the Vols have a lot of work left to do. Tennessee managed only 111 yards on the ground in the game, led by Davis with 41 yards in eight carries and Fleming had 39 yards in four attempts. The Vols also were held to 3-of-9 on third down conversion attempts, while Rutgers led in the time of possession 37:55 to UT's 22:05.
Tennessee's kicking woes also continued against the Scarlet Knights as Walls missed both of his field goal attempts and was replaced on UTs last two extra point efforts by Phillip Newman.
However there were also some signs of progress. Tennessee had no fumbles or turnovers in the game and it converted on 4-of-5 red zone opportunities.
On defense Keyon Whiteside intercepted two passes and returned the second for a touchdown. However it was nullified by a roughing the passer penalty. UT was called for seven penalties in the game costing it 57 yards and six points. Whiteside returned his first interception 26 yards to set up the Vols initial score.
Tennessee's defense suffered another severe setback when Will linebacker Kevin Simon went down with a fractured ankle early in the second half. Simon, who redshirted last year while rehabbing from knee surgery, stepped in as a strong replacement for Kevin Burnett, another casualty of torn knee ligaments. That leaves defensive coordinator John Chavis making more adjustments to a defensive front that has seen three of its most talented players lost for the year. Defensive end Constantine Ritzmann also suffered a torn knee ligament in preseason practice.
The Vols stop troops were led by Demetrin Veal with nine tackles and a sack, Eddie Moore added eight tackles and a sack while Rashad Baker finished with seven stops including six solo tackles.
Tennessee's problems against Rutgers were compounded when three players wide receiver Montrell Jones, defensive end Karlton Neal and guard Anthony Herrera were suspended for rules violations. All three are expected to return for next week's battle against Arkansas.
It remains a matter of conjecture if Tennessee's swagger will return.