KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – It was a crisp fall day, beautiful sunshine, a packed house cheering the home team as it made play after play and crushed the guys across the line of scrimmage.
For Ole Miss, it was a year ago.
Dexter McCluster rushed for almost 300 yards, and Ole Miss ripped Tennessee 42-17.
Saturday before a Neyland Stadium crowd of 96,044, Tennessee capitalized on Ole Miss mistakes and got 323 passing yards from freshman quarterback Tyler Bray – 265 of them in the first half – in a 52-14 win.
The Rebels (4-6, 1-5 SEC) now must win their final two games, both against ranked opponents, to avoid a losing season. The Eastern Division last-place Vols (4-6, 1-5 SEC) gave head coach Derek Dooley his first SEC win by beating the West’s last-place team.
The Vols forced five turnovers and gave away none.
“I say it every week, that’s the key,” Dooley said. “It’s also an indication of how locked-in you are.”
Ole Miss quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, a game-time decision as starter because of of a concussion sustained last week against Louisiana Lafayette, was intercepted three times, with two of those picks returned for touchdowns.
A disturbing tone was set on Tennessee’s first play offensive play when Bray’s pass on a slant hit Ole Miss linebacker Jonathan Cornell in the hands.
But instead of making the catch, Cornell tipped the ball in the air. It was grabbed by Vols receiver Justin Hunter, who ran away from defensive back Charles Sawyer. Tennessee grabbed a 7-0 lead and put the pedal to the metal from there.
“Playmakers, that’s the bottom line,” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. “The score we had here today was the way it was last year … but in our favor. Why? Playmakers. You’ve got to get a fumbled punt, get a tipped ball, stop tipping it up to them. That’s been the entire difference.”
Masoli has been one of Nutt’s top playmakers on offense. Nutt said he wasn’t told until late Friday that he could play Masoli against Tennessee.
Through the week he prepared backup quarterback Nathan Stanley to start Masoli, though held out of contact, remained engaged in practice.
“I don’t remember when I was told I would start. It was something I was assuming anyway,” Masoli said.
Masoli downplayed the concussion’s part in his performance, but Nutt did not.
“Not making excuses, but he didn’t get his feet set, didn’t do the things he normally does. That hurt us,” Nutt said.
Whether concussion or just poor judgment, two of Masoli’s mistakes took life out of the Rebels.
Ole Miss was down 14-0 with less than 3 minutes left in the first quarter when he was late in getting the ball to running back Jeff Scott. Tennessee freshman cornerback Eric Gordon stepped in front of Scott, made the pick and ran 46 yards to the end zone.
It was a 31-14 game on the Rebels’ first possession of the third quarter. Ole Miss faced second-and-8 from its 7 when Masoli, trying to loft the ball to tailback Brandon Bolden, put too much air under it. Bolden had no chance to catch it, and the ball floated right to cornerback Prentiss Waggner, who returned it 10 yards for a 38-14 lead.
It was a 45-14 game before Nutt went to Stanley.
Masoli was 7 for 18 passing for 80 yards. He rushed seven times for 22 yards.
Masoli said his timing may have been off “a little bit, but the interceptions were on me.”
The passing yardage, meanwhile, was on the Ole Miss defense, as well as early penalties that helped keep the Vols in a groove.
Ole Miss got to Bray with some early pressure – he was sacked three times on the day – but not enough to make him fear the next hit.
Bray finished 18 for 34. He was only 3 for 10 in the second half but in the first half had six completions of 20 yards or more including a 22-yard fade to Hunter for a 28-7 lead with 4:01 left in the second quarter.
Tennessee outgained Ole Miss 441-285, and the Vols were 7 for 16 on third-down conversions.
Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said he didn’t see quit from his players, but he also didn’t see playmakers.
“They got a lot of bounces, but the way you get bounces is you have to make those,” Nix said. “The guys were in position a lot of times, but you have to become playmakers. We feel like we put them in position, and the rest is left up to the kids.”
PARRISH ALFORD / NEMS Daily Journal