Evan Berry returned the opening kickoff 96 yards to the house to give Tennessee an early lead, but the Vols could not capitalize on late defensive stops to rally back from a second-half deficit, falling to Arkansas, 24-20, on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
Joshua Dobbs finished 20-for-36 for 232 passing yards and had seven yards on seven carries with one rushing touchdown. Jalen Hurd had 90 yards on 19 carries in the loss.
“Too many missed tackles, but really at the end of the day and what it takes to play winning football, we just weren’t able to make big plays at big moments of the game,” Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said. “I give [Arkansas] credit. They were able to do that.”
Berry ignited the home crowd of 101,265 when he returned the opening kickoff for a score. It marked the first time that the Vols had opened the game with a kickoff return touchdown since Nov. 22, 1980, when Willie Gault brought a kick back 92 yards for a score against Kentucky.
The Vols’ offense started hot as well with Hurd sprinting 35 yards to the UT 46 on the first offensive play. Tennessee (2-3, 0-2 SEC) grew its lead to 14-0 when Dobbs dove for the front left pylon on a seven-yard run to cap an 11-play, 89-yard drive.
Arkansas (2-3, 1-1 SEC) got on the scoreboard with its next possession. A 52-yard pass from Brandon Allen to Drew Morgan put the Razorbacks at the UT 23 and three plays later Alex Collins ran for a touchdown from four yards out.
The Razorbacks knotted the game at 14-14 early in the second quarter when Allen connected with Dominique Reed on a 33-yard touchdown pass to complete a four-play, 80-yard drive.
Aaron Medley’s 35-yard field goal with 9:54 left in the first half gave the Vols a 17-14 lead. The Vols went 58 yards on 14 plays on the drive, which featured a 19-yard pass from Dobbs to Alvin Kamara down the left sideline to bring UT to the Razorbacks’ 21.
Arkansas drove 60 yards in nine plays to close the first half, tying the game at 17-17 with a 26-yard field goal by Cole Hedlund.
Tennessee had 275 yards at the half to Arkansas’ 258. Hurd dominated the ground game with 89 yards on 15 carries before halftime.
The Razorbacks marched 80 yards down the field on the first drive of the second half with Collins punching in a one-yard score put Arkansas in front, 24-17.
Tennessee answered with a 45-yard Medley field goal, the second-longest of his career, to draw to within 24-20.
The Vols’ defense kept the team in the game with three big stops.
On the ensuing Arkansas possession, Tennessee stopped the Razorbacks at their own 5-yard line and Shy Tuttle blocked a 22-yard field goal attempt by Hedlund with a surge up the middle to keep it a four-point game.
The UT defense came up big on another long Arkansas drive, stopping the Razorbacks on 3rd-and-4 from the 10-yard line. Arkansas tried a fake field goal with backup kicker Adam McFain running wide right and coming up short at the 7-yard line.
The Vols halted the Razorbacks again on 3rd-and-2 at the UT 43 when Collins slipped in the backfield on a rush to the left side.
Dobbs and the UT offense took over at their own 14-yard line with 5:08 remaining. Dobbs hit Josh Smith for a 20-yard gain on 3rd-and-13 to put the Vols at their own 46 with 3:37 left. One minute later, UT was faced with 4th-and-13 from its own 43 and Dobbs’ pass to Josh Malone down the right sideline was just out of reach
Arkansas ran five times and kneeled on its final possession to seal the win for the Razorbacks.
The Vols will next host Georgia on Oct. 10 at 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS.