“We’ve just got to learn how to finish, honestly,” linebacker Brant Mitchell said. “We’ve got to come together as a defense. We’ve got to learn to play harder in the second half. We came out in the first half and we shut it down. We’ve got to keep the momentum going in the second half. Just got to learn how to finish.”
Tennessee running back John Kelly, who gained 91 of his 128 rushing yards after halftime, said he could feel a shift with the change in tempo.
“Our up-tempo started to pick up a little bit more and our offense was clicking, so, yeah, we definitely were kind of wearing ’em out,” Kelly said.
Tech coach Paul Johnson disputed the idea that fatigue was a factor for his defense. He found fault in Tech’s inability to create negative plays. The Jackets had no sacks and recorded just one tackle for loss, a shortcoming last season.
“We had the ball 41 minutes, they had it 18,” Johnson said.
What helped, too, was that Tennessee began to play better, particularly in the passing game. The first half was hampered by drops, but quarterback Quinten Dormady turned to wide receiver Marquez Callaway for two of the biggest plays in the game after halftime, a 10-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter to cut Tech’s lead to 21-14 and then a 50-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the fourth quarter that kept Tennessee in the game at 28-21 with 11:49 to play. Callaway also hauled in a 40-yard pass on Tennessee’s final drive of regulation that tied the game at 28.
“The second half, once they got rolling, there wasn’t much stopping them,” Johnson said.