By Jimmy Hyams
Despite two lengthy weather delays and a less-than-stellar passing attack, Tennessee outlasted Vanderbilt 28-10 to snap a three-game losing streak to an in-state rival on a rainy Saturday night in Neyland Stadium.
On a Senior Day for 13 Vols, true freshman Eric Gray stole the show, setting a Tennessee freshman record with 246 yards on 21 carries to break the mark of 232 set by Jamal Lewis against Georgia in 1997.
Not bad for a guy that didn’t even start and was third-team most of the season.
In the absence of Ty Chandler (ankle), Gray came off the bench to score on runs of 56, 94 and 4 yards for an offense that didn’t do much otherwise. The Vols totaled 417 yards – 297 rushing – against a Vanderbilt team that was punctured for over 400 yards rushing by Kentucky and Ole Miss.
“I’m not surprised,’’ receiver Marquez Callaway said of Gray’s dynamic performance.
“It was a testament to the line,’’ said Gray, who had 211 rushing yards in 11 games before his outburst. “It was a blessing to the line, a blessing to the coaching staff. … Props to Ty (Chandler) and Tim (Jordan) because they’ve taught me so much.’’
Backed up at UT’s 6-yard line in the second quarter, Gray darted through the line and scooted 94 yards for the second-longest touchdown run in UT history.
“It’s been a dream of mine,’’ Gray said, “to be backed up like that and take it 94 yards.’’
Gray said he once had a 96-yarder as a high school junior.
Offensive lineman Trey Smith was impressed with Gray’s long jaunt.
“Oh crap,’’ was Smith’s initial reaction. “I didn’t think he’d break it. When he got past the 50, I thought, `Oh, he’s gone.’’
Based on the weather forecast, Smith had a feeling UT would rely heavily on the run game.
“It’s gonna be dirty, it’s gonna be muddy,’’ Smith said. “It’s gonna get physical.’’
Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who passed for 415 yards against Missouri last week, was rendered ineffective by the rain and wind. He threw an interception on UT’s first possession and had just 26 passing yards at halftime. He finished 6 of 17 for 120 yards and one score.
Tennessee’s fifth win in a row and sixth in seven games helped erase most of the sting from a 1-4 start and put the Vols in position to get an attractive bowl bid – most likely to the Outback, Gator or Music City bowl. All three would clamor for a hot team with fans that travel well.
“When we were 1-4, probably nobody gave us much hope,’’ said coach Jeremy Pruitt. “But these guys stayed together and stayed the course.’’
Pruitt said the team couldn’t have done it without good relationships between coaches and players, and players and players.
“They did what most teams can’t do,’’ Pruitt said of the turnaround.
Much of the credit goes to a defense that improved almost game by game. In a contest was delayed 28 minutes at the start and 39 minutes in the fourth quarter, UT held Vandy to 279 total yards, 110 rushing. Scheduled to kickoff at 4 p.m., the game didn’t end until 8:15.
But it didn’t delay the inevitable victory that ended Vanderbilt’s win streak over the Vols.
“For me, if you lose to Vanderbilt,’’ said defensive lineman Matthew Butler, “I’m going to be real with you, that’s embarrassing.’’
UT embarrassed a team hardly worthy of SEC stature. Vandy went 3-9 this year, 1-7 in the SEC with each league defeat by at least 17 points.
Watching Vandy quarterback Riley Neal struggle (he was 14 of 29 for 139 yards with three sacks) was a reminder of how much the team missed Kyle Shurmur, who put 38, 42 and 45 points on UT.
Tennessee also did a terrific job on 1,000-yard rusher on Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who had 13 yards on six carries.
It took Tennessee a while to get going on offense as the unit failed to get a first down on the first series. The Vols scored touchdowns on the next three drives to build a 21-3 halftime lead.
From there, it was a matter of putting the finishing touches on a remarkable turnaround – one that seemed so improbable after a 1-4 start.