Temmessee’s Bryce Thompson set the tone and the Vols never looked back.
Thompson intercepted UAB on the first offensive play of the game and recorded two more to power the Vols to a 30-7 Homecoming victory over the Blazers.
Tennessee improved to 4-5 overall on the year.
“That was a really hard-fought game,” Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “Those guys, especially on defense, played an outstanding game. You can see why they are one of the top-ranked defenses in the country. They have good players and good schemes. They did a good job executing. “I thought, defensively, (we) really changed the game with the turnovers in the first half.”
Thompson tied the Tennessee record for interceptions in the game – one of nine Vols who recorded three in a contest.
“It obviously hurt that he wasn’t practicing, but he’s improving,” Pruitt said of Thompson. “He’s been banged up for a couple of weeks now, he’s a tough kid that really wants to play and likes to play. He’s continued to improve, and he should. He’s playing more ball, he’s older, he’s maturing, he’s getting stronger, he’s been in the system a little longer. He needs to continue to do that.”
Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who had surgery on his left hand last Sunday after injuring it vs. South Carolina on Saturday evening, handled the majority of the snaps for Tennessee. The redshirt junior completed 13 of 21 passes for 147 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Redshirt senior Jauan Jennings caught five balls for 70 yards to lead all receivers and moved into ninth place in career receiving yards at Tennessee with 1,906. He also added a two-yard touchdown run. Junior Ty Chandler paced UT’s rushing attack with 85 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.
Defensively, the Vols limited UAB to 237 total yards, including only 63 on the ground. UT was led in tackles by senior safety Nigel Warrior and freshman linebacker Henry T’o’o To’o, who recorded six and five stops, respectively.
Tennessee wasted little time getting on the scoreboard at the start of the game, and the Vols’ defense came up with a big play to set the table. On UAB’s first play from scrimmage, Thompson got his first interception of the season, picking off Blazers quarterback Tyler Johnston III and returning it 23 yards to the UAB 19. The visitors held their ground on defense, though, forcing the Vols to settle for a 36-yard Brent Cimaglia field goal and a 3-0 lead with 13:27 left in the opening stanza.
Cimaglia pushed the Big Orange’s lead to 6-0 with 4:44 to go in the first, connecting from 48 yards out to cap an 11-play, 56-yard drive.
“He’s a guy that’s always working,” Pruitt said of Cimaglia. “He has talent, it’s obvious when you’re out there. The thing I like about him is that I think he could play middle linebacker, too. I like that guy. If he misses one, he jumps up there and wants to hit another one, and he doesn’t go and try to hide somewhere. He wants to get up there and do it again.”
“I think he has a really good makeup about him. He’s a great competitor. We do our offseason conditioning and he’s an athlete. I don’t know what else he played besides kicker before he got here; he was probably a soccer player, but he might’ve been a defensive player. I don’t know, the way he acts, he gets out there and competes his tail off, and I’m glad we’ve got him.”
With the Blazers moving the ball and threatening to score late in the first period, Darrell Taylor ended that thought with a third-down sack. The redshirt senior linebacker dragged down Johnston III for a loss of six, forcing UAB to punt.
UT’s Thompson was in the right spot again early in the second period, stepping in front of a Johnston III pass for his second interception of the night and recording the first multi-pick game of his career. After UT was unable to move the ball, Cimaglia came on and drilled his third field goal of the half, a career-long 53-yarder, to push the lead to 9-0 with 13:38 to go in the second frame.
The kick bested Cimaglia’s 51-yarder vs. BYU earlier this season and was the longest by a Vol since Jeff Hall also was true from 53 yards vs. Oklahoma State in 1995.
Tennessee junior defensive lineman Darel Middleton forced another UAB miscue on the very next possession, and fellow junior Aubrey Solomon pounced on Johnston III’s fumble at the UAB 30. Five plays later, Chandler burst through the right side of the line and raced 11 yards to the end zone for the first touchdown of the game. Cimaglia added the PAT to lift UT’s lead to 16-0 with 11:36 remaining in the second quarter.
Thompson notched his record-tying third interception of the game off Johnston III with 6:37 to go in the first half, setting up UT’s offense at the UAB 43. Six plays later, Jennings lined up at quarterback and bulldozed his way two yards to pay-dirt. Cimaglia booted the PAT through the uprights to give Tennessee a 23-0 advantage it would take into the locker room at the intermission.
With 1:08 to go in the third period, Tennessee expanded its lead to 30-0. Guarantano hit running back Eric Gray for a 13-yard touchdown strike, marking the first score of the rookie’s career. Cimaglia added the extra point to remain perfect in his career in 58 PAT attempts.
The Vols will hit the road next weekend, facing the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in a game televised on the SEC Network.
“We have a big challenge next week,” Pruitt said. “ We have to get focused on that.”