KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Butch Jones often follows closer-than-expected victories by saying that he never will apologize for a win.
This time, he had a different postgame approach.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about getting the victory, but (that was) just flat-out unacceptable,” Jones said Saturday after Tennessee staggered to a 17-13 victory over 27 ½-point underdog Massachusetts. “The performance is unacceptable. We’ll get back to work tonight and correct it and correct our deficiencies.”
Tennessee (3-1) was trying to bounce back from a 26-20 loss at No. 20 Florida in which the Vols allowed a tiebreaking 63-yard touchdown pass as time expired. Jones’ staff was roasted all week for everything from Tennessee’s red-zone play calling to its defensive strategy on the game’s final play.
The Vols’ performance against UMass (0-5) won’t quiet that criticism. Tennessee struggled to put away a winless team that played the entire game without star tight end Adam Breneman and most of the second half without starting quarterback Andrew Ford due to injuries.
“There’s no excuse to come out here and play the way we did,” Tennessee offensive tackle Brett Kendrick said.
Tennessee was held scoreless for the game’s first 25 minutes and final 22 minutes. The sluggish performance amid summer-like conditions resulted in a sterile Neyland Stadium atmosphere. Although the announced attendance was 95,324, there appeared to be approximately 30,000 or so fewer fans than that in the fourth quarter as UMass attempted to rally.
The Vols survived thanks to a pass rush that recorded seven sacks, their highest single-game total since 2008. Tennessee’s John Kelly rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown. Brandon Johnson added seven catches for 123 yards for career highs in both categories.
“We played better than them,” UMass linebacker Bryton Barr said. “They’re a heck of a team, obviously, but just eliminate a couple of mistakes and we’re winning that game.”
Tennessee overcame two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, including one on Jones that gave UMass first-and-goal on its first touchdown drive.
“I’ll take full responsibility,” Jones said of the penalty. “That’s on me. I also think it was a byproduct of huddling our sideline and talking to our team. The official thinks I’m talking to him and then did talk to him and, you know, that’s on me. (I was) trying to give our team a spark as well.”
UMass threatened to take the lead with less than 10 minutes left when Andy Isabella’s 42-yard run put the Minutemen at the Tennessee 38. But the Minutemen went backward from there — thanks in part to a Jonathan Kongbo sack — and punted on fourth-and-16 at the 44.
The Minutemen’s next drive stalled after UMass got as far as Tennessee’s 45. Tennessee clinched the victory when UMass lost the ball on downs at its own 17 with 22 seconds left.
“I’m proud of the way they played,” UMass coach Mark Whipple said. “We wanted to get it to a one-possession game in the fourth quarter, and we did. We just couldn’t make the play that we needed to, to get us over the top.”
Both teams used backup quarterbacks for part of the second half. UMass’ Ross Comis took over for the injured Ford late in the third quarter. Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano replaced Quinten Dormady late in the third quarter, but Dormady returned after the Vols failed to move the ball on Guarantano’s three series.
UMass: Kicking woes and poor pass protection have hurt UMass all season, and the pattern continued on Saturday. Michael Schreiner missed an extra-point attempt that would have tied the game in the second quarter. Logan Laurent replaced Schreiner and made UMass’ second extra-point try. UMass had allowed a Football Bowl Subdivision-high 5.75 sacks per game before Saturday and has now increased that average to 6.0.
Tennessee: The Vols must sort out their quarterback situation after neither Dormady nor Guarantano could move the ball consistently on Saturday. Dormady was 17 of 27 for 187 yards with a touchdown pass and fumble. Guarantano was 2 of 5 for minus-3 yards and had three carries for 4 yards.
STUBBORN AGAINST SEC
UMass has gone 0-4 against SEC teams over the last two years but has been competitive in each of those games.
In three games with SEC schools last season, UMass trailed Florida 10-7 at the start of the fourth quarter before losing 24-7 and also fell 47-35 to Mississippi State and 34-28 to South Carolina. UMass actually led Mississippi State at halftime.
An ankle injury prevented Breneman from playing. Tennessee center Jashon Robertson and defensive tackle Shy Tuttle were announced as scratches shortly before the opening kickoff due to unspecified injuries. UMass played the second half without injured offensive tackle Jack Driscoll.
UMass hosts Ohio.
Tennessee hosts No. 11 Georgia.
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