Saturday night saw the Vols get another victory over the Vanderbilt Commodores. It also saw the return of sophomore starting quarterback Tyler Bray. Ever since he went down in the 4th quarter against UGA with a broken thumb, the Big Orange offense looked allergic to the endzone. The coaches turned to 5th year senior Matt Simms to lead the team once again, and while the running game showed some life against LSU and Alabama, the passing game was nonexistent and the Vols didn't score enough points to win. The coaches then turned to true freshman signal caller Justin Worley to get some things going through the air. Against South Carolina, he showed some flashes of talent but looked like a true freshman making his first start against one of the better defenses in the nation. He didn't get any help from the ground game and some dropped passes (including a TD) didn't further his cause. He showed well against MTSU though and against an average Arkansas defense, the offense was able to move the ball but couldn't score the points needed to hang with the potent Razorback offense.There was a positive to take from Arkansas though. Before the game got underway, Bray was spotted on the field zinging passes around.
It had appeared that the team had hit a season low in Fayetteville, and many wondered whether the young Volunteer football team would be able to bounce back and finish the season on a winning note. After seeing Bray in pre-game warmups in Arkansas, and keeping up with the expected 6 week timetable of his return, the fans and players alike were anxious for the return of the team's offensive leader. He practiced with the team for the first time last week and it completely energized the team from top to bottom. The offensive line had a bit more pep in their step, the receivers all had smiles on their faces, the backs were ready, and the defense knew that Bray could help the offense score which took a little pressure off of them. Early in the week there was obvious rust, and during the Monday press conference, Derek Dooley told everyone that he expected Bray to not be what he was 5 weeks ago. He was right as usual, Bray wasn't himself, but to be honest with you a Tyler Bray at 70% is better than a Matt Simms and a Justin Worley at 100% right now.
Tennessee enjoyed one of it's better weeks of practice last week in preparation for the Commodores, and the energy showed on the field. This Tennessee team looked rejuvenated and ready to send the senior out as winners and get one step closer to a bowl game. On the first drive, the defense forced and recovered a fumble. Here came what everyone was waiting for. Was Bray going to be able to throw the ball around. It was said that during the week they coaches had to install the pistol offense because Tyler was unable to take a snap under center, so that was also something new for the fans and opposing defenses. With the offense in the pistol, the Vols ripped off a couple of very nice runs and Tauren Poole stated the scoring with a 1 yard td run.
The rest of the game showed an energized Vol defense and an offense that struggled at time, but you could tell never hung it's head and quit. Tyler Bray wasn't himself. There were some throws that looked fantastic and others that fluttered. He threw 2 interceptions (which matched his season total before this game), but the offense kept scrapping. They even had a potent rushing attack for the very first time with Bray at the helm. Even with the mental mistakes and rust from Bray, the offense looked balanced and as if it could score at any given time. Watching on tv, you could see the fire in the team on both sides of the ball and you never felt that Tennessee was out of it; even when they went down 21-14 early in the 4th quarter. Tyler eventually led the team on a long drive late in the 4th, mixing in a lot of run with the passing attack, and scored the tying td. Tennessee won the game in overtime and everyone celebrated.
After the game, the team was elated and pointed to Bray as a major cog in their success. Multiple defenders were quoted as saying that when Tyler is playing, it takes pressure off of them because they know the offense will score points. Receiver Da'Rick Rogers said that Bray just "makes it easier." Even coach Dooley credited Tyler with some of the teams extra spark stating that "he's their guy". It was obvious on Saturday night that when Bray is taking the snaps, everyone plays at a higher level. Da'Rick had over 100 yards and 2 TD's putting him over 1,000 yards for the season. The offensive line blocked better than they have blocked all season. It seems that the "qb school" the coaches put Bray through during is time on the sidelined paid off some in the run game. We all new that he wasn't going to be at his best, and the stats showed that. He went 16-33 for 189yards 2 td's and 2 ints. For Bray, those numbers are quite pedestrian. What he did though, is he pumped life into the rest of the team. They played with a confidence they haven't had since the first half against UGA. Different people were stepping up and making plays, no longer was the team waiting for the next guy to make a play.
Dooley said that “Tyler knows how to corral those guys when they're getting a little mopey." That is what a leader does. Bray has grown up a lot since last season as a player, but Saturday night he showed the team and the fanbase that he had matured greatly as a leader. After the game he could have easily blamed his injury or the gloves he played 2 quarters with on the interceptions but he didn't. He took full responsibility. He praised the defense for the job they did. The entire team believes in him. The coaches believe in him. Just like last season, Tyler Bray is the spark that this team has needed for over a month now. He is the unquestioned leader of this offense, and now you could say that he has taken this entire team by the horns. Everyone is excited that he is back and they expect to win. When a team as young and talented as the Vols are believe in themselves, have a leader, and learn to win in the face of adversity; it can make for a rough outing for opponents. That is where the Vols are headed, and the bulk of this new found life can be placed on the wiry frame of a young quarterback that has committed himself to his university, his coaches, and his team. It's Bray's time on Rocky Top, and if Saturday was any indication, very bright days are on the horizon.