The empty seats at the Liberty Bowl tonight spoke volumes (can empty seats be loud?). Four of the six largest crowds in the 46-year history of the stadium were on hand over Tennessee’s last four visits to Memphis (1992, ’96, 2000, ’06). The smallest among these crowds was 61,783 (in 2006). But with Tennessee at the bottom of the SEC, and the hometown Tigers looking up at Conference USA, no more than 39,742 could find the heart and nerve to witness the 23rd meeting in this one-sided intrastate rivalry.
After a promising start for the Tigers — a stop on fourth down of the Vols’ opening drive, followed by a 62-yard touchdown drive — the game turned into The Tyler Bray Show. The freshman quarterback, starting his first college game, passed for 308 yards and five touchdowns . . . before halftime.
Memphis turnovers provided the Tennessee offense with a short field on back-to-back series in the second quarter. In relief of Ryan Williams at quarterback, Cannon Smith threw an interception that was returned 35 yards by Janzen Jackson, and then fumbled on the U of M’s next series. Smith limped off the field after the fumble was carried 45 yards to the Memphis 9-yard-line by Prentiss Waggner. (Smith spent the second half in street clothes, though the extent of his injury was unknown following the game.) Bray connected with Gerald Jones for his fifth score of the game to give UT a 37-7 lead with 4:13 to play in the first half. In a season of record-breaking point totals allowed by the Tigers, those 37 points were the most they’d allowed in a first half. (A later field goal by Michael Palardy made the score 40-7 at halftime.
“We thought we had a strong week of practice going into this game,” said coach Larry Porter after the game. “We got off to a good start, then we had a turnover and things unfolded from that. We were in a number of positions to get them off the field on third down, and we didn’t. I thought my kids fought, but we just couldn’t get anything going. (The Tigers didn’t force a punt until the third quarter, after forcing no punts a week ago against Houston.)
Williams passed for 221 yards and a pair of scores (both to Marcus Rucker, one early, the other with 1:26 to play), but was intercepted twice and sacked four times. “He’s so up and down,” said Porter about Williams. “At this point, we can no longer treat him like he’s a freshman. He’s got to be held accountable for the mistakes he makes on the field. He got off to a good start, but then it got snowballing. Overall, he’s too inconsistent right now.”
The Tiger defense allowed more than 500 yards (509) for the fourth straight game. Bray finished with 325 yards passing and Tauren Poole led the Vols on the ground with 101 yards and a touchdown. The Tiger offense gained 308 yards, with Gregory Ray rushing for 60 yards on 14 carries.
Now 1-8, the Tigers will travel for their next two games (Marshall and UAB), before finishing the season at home (against UCF) on November 27th. “We’ve got pride on the line,” emphasized Porter. “Very much so. These kids, although they’re mentally fragile, I don’t think they’re ready to give up. What we have to do is find a way for them to experience some success. And I think that will make a world of difference.”