WHAT HAPPENED: Tennessee never quite got a rhythm on offense against one of the worst defenses in the Football Bowl Subdivision, but got a defensive shutout in a 24-0 win over North Texas in front of 96,197 on Homecoming Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
The Vols improved to 6-4 overall, becoming bowl eligible for the second straight season after missing the postseason from 2011-13. North Texas fell to 1-9.
Tennessee scored on its first drive with a 27-yard touchdown run by junior college transfer Alvin Kamara. After stalling out on their second drive and punting from the North Texas 35, they drove 71 plays in eight yards on their third possession and scored on a 1-yard touchdown plunge by sophomore tailback Jalen Hurd on the first play of the second quarter.
The Vols punted again before getting a 34-yard field goal from sophomore kicker Aaron Medley to make it 17-0 before the half. Kamara rushed for a 15-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to cap the scoring.
WHO MADE IT HAPPEN: Kamara rushed for 127 yards and two touchdowns on just 15 carries, providing explosion plays on a day when the Vols didn’t have much going on offense. Hurd rushed for 73 yards and a score.
On defense, freshman Darrin Kirkland Jr. led the Vols with eight tackles including one for loss. Defensive ends Chris Weatherd and Derek Barnett each recorded a sack. Barnett has six sacks in the last five games.
WHY DID IT HAPPEN: As effective as Kamara was, the Vols didn’t find it as easy to run the ball as they expected against the Mean Green. The 237 yards they rushed for is under the average number North Texas allows. The Vols only threw for 172 yards, which is way under the 286.9 yards per game the Mean Green usually give up.
Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs never seemed to have much rhythm or accuracy. He completed 15 of 23 passes, which isn’t a horrible percentage, but many of his completions were screens and many of his misses weren’t even close. His longest pass, a 26-yarder to freshman Jauan Jennings, would’ve been a sure touchdown if he had noticed earlier that Jennings’ defender had fallen down. The Vols’ blocking was just OK, and not nearly as dominant as one might expect between an SEC team and arguably the worst team in Conference USA.
But Kamara made sure the Vols had enough offense, and the Vols’ defense kept North Texas’ anemic offense from accomplishing much. The Mean Green finished with 199 yards of offense including just 92 on the ground. The Mean Green never advanced past the Tennessee 45.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN: Tennessee coach Butch Jones pointed out that there’s no “U” next to the “W” that denotes a win as “ugly,” so there isn’t much of a tangible negative to a 24-0 victory. The one meaningful thing the Vols lost was an opportunity to give more time to their backups.
Jones made sure the Vols’ reserves made the most of the time they had. They never kneeled the clock out on the final drive so backup quarterback Quinten Dormady could have three full possessions with the whole offense at his disposal. Still, at the game’s beginning, Tennessee was assuredly hoping to get Dormady more than five pass attempts, tailbacks John Kelly and Joe Young more than nine total carries, and their defensive subs more than two possessions.
All the same, the Vols are bowl eligibile with two weeks remaining in the regular season. The Vols haven’t accomplished that feet since 2007, the last time they won the SEC East title. Though fans will be disappointed with anything less than 8-4, the Vols can go forward that no disaster from this point forward would lead them to staying home for the holidays. A performance like Saturday’s probably won’t get them a win against Missouri or Vanderbilt, but if they step up and win those games the Outback Bowl is not out of the question.