Sept. 4, 2011
BY JOSH PATE
All during fall camp, Tennessee's sophomore receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers kept track of their catch chart from practice. They called it a friendly competition among each other, making note of how many catches each had as the preparation for the season wound down. Turns out, the in-house rivalry among the Vols' starting receivers was a dagger to Montana.
The new deep-ball threats of Hunter and Rogers combined for 246 yards receiving and two touchdowns in Tennessee's 42-16 victory over Montana Saturday night at Neyland Stadium. Hunter finished the night with six catches for a career-high 146 yards, while Rogers caught five balls for 100 yards. It was the first time two UT receivers topped 100 yards since Lucas Taylor (118) and Austin Rogers (112) did it against Southern Mississippi on Sept. 8, 2007.
"They've been doing it all camp," UT head coach Derek Dooley said of his new starting receiving corps. "They both made big plays there, and they're going to make a lot of big plays for us this year to win some games. It shows you what they're capable of doing. We've got to do a better job as coaches of putting them in position to catch a lot of balls."
Rogers got the call first when the Vols recovered a fumbled punt. The next play, quarterback Tyler Bray found Rogers sprinting down the right side and connected with him for 47 yards and a touchdown strike.
On Tennessee's next possession, Bray hit Hunter in stride across the middle, and Hunter turned on the burners and sprinted past the Montana secondary for 81 yards and the Vols' second touchdown.
"We saw them when we were watching film and we were working all week in practice to make these combinations ready for the game," Bray said of the offense's ability to land the big plays against the Grizzlies. "We got some of the young guys in there tonight with some more game experience and got another victory."
Hunter said having the quarterback call his number was a boost.
"It gives us a lot of confidence that he trusts me and Da'Rick to get the balls to us," Hunter said of Bray.
Tennessee relied on former receivers Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore last year as the prime pass-catching threats. With both now playing on NFL teams, young Bray has turned to a pair of sophomore classmates. Yet, when Bray found his new targets, particularly Hunter, they looked effortless at times.
"I really thought they lost two outstanding receivers last year and I don't think they missed a beat in their receiver play," said Montana head coach Robin Pflugrad. "Eleven (Hunter) is a special guy and he is going to be a great player. He has an extra gear for a really tall guy. I think they are better there."
If that's the case, Dooley is thankful. He preached about establishing the running game, particularly early in the season to get the offensive line in full form for conference play. Montana, however, was ready against senior tailback Tauren Poole and freshman backup Marlin Lane, who was impressive in his Tennessee debut.
Poole tacked on some big yards near the end of the game to finish with 98 yards, and Lane had 35. Still, the push up front wasn't what the coaches expected so the bonus of having Bray connect with the young receivers was clutch.
"I knew this wasn't going to be easy," Dooley said. "We're young up front, and this was a big game for us. Tyler did a good job. He was poised out there. He put up good numbers with three touchdowns. And we've got some guys who can make some big plays on the perimeter, and they showed it."
Bray was happy with the performance, but he said there was more that could be done with the smooth combination between quarterback and receivers. And he plans to begin next week.
"We did OK," Bray said. "There were a few throws I should have made and a few reads I should have made different. I kind of left Da'Rick out to dry and I didn't like that at all, and I owe him one for the next game."