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Halftime Thoughts: Vols trail Ole Miss 24-12 After Tumultuous 30 Minutes

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Well, it’s safe to say this game has lived up to the hype so far. Or, it did in the first quarter, at least.

At the half, No. 13 Ole Miss leads Tennessee 24-12. The Rebels have scored twice on rushing touchdowns, with one through the air and a field goal. Meanwhile, Tennessee has punched in one score with a safety in the first quarter.

Insane pre-game translates to insane first-quarter action

As mentioned, the first half of this game was absolute madness — especially in the first 15 minutes. A muffed punt, the aforementioned safety, a fumble return that wasn’t, and plenty of fitting gambling from Lane Kiffin all transpired in a quarter that was preceded by an insane light show inside a checkered Neyland Stadium (that video that can be seen at the top).

The muffed punt from Velus Jones Jr. gave way to Ole Miss’ first touchdown of the night, but only after the Rebels connected on two fourth-down conversions before a holding call forced an insurmountable 4th-and-17.

On another fourth-down gamble, Rebels quarterback Matt Corral appeared to lose the football before Tyler Baron scooped it up and raced the other way for Tennessee’s first score of the night. The officiating crew changed its mind, though, giving Ole Miss the ball back before Tennessee took possession.

Tillman comes through as Jones and Payton struggle early

Early in the night, Hendon Hooker overthrew an open Velus Jones, Jr. after JaVonta Payton dropped what could have been a touchdown. Later, though, Hooker laced a pass over the middle to Cedric Tillman for the Vols’ first touchdown of the night.

Granted, this score came after the aforementioned safety, as Corral was called for intentional grounding after a sack from Omari Thomas. The resulting points made the score 7-2, so Tennessee’s touchdown notched a 9-2 lead before Ole Miss connected on a field goal to take a 10-9 lead into the second quarter.

In total, the first quarter lasted over an hour — the longest quarter UT has experienced this season.

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Matt Corral is for real

The Heisman candidate has shown early his ability to scramble. He sprinted 23 yards on 3rd-and-13 in the first quarter to convert a big first down, and he dodged his way to another first down early in the second quarter. Through the first half, he has 16 carries for a whopping 97 yards. 

He’s also taken advantage of a struggling Tennessee secondary, having hit a wide-open Dannis Jackson for a 33-yard score in the second frame. In passing, Corral is 12-for-24 for 164 yards and a touchdown. 

Welcome back, Jabari Small — but Hooker struggles before reconnecting

While Ole Miss' rushing attack has soared, Tennessee's has veered between decent and disastrous. 

In the absence of Tiyon Evans, Jabari Small has roared back with a vengeance after missing two games due to a shoulder injury sustained earlier this season.

The sophomore from Memphis has 10 carries for 52 yards, but Hendon Hooker has struggled in several facets -- at least before the end of the second quarter. 

With 53 seconds left before the break, UT started at its own 16-yard-line. But the Vols moved with urgency, eventually putting Chase McGrath within striking distance for a 39-yard field goal as time expired in the half. 

Hooker needs plenty more of that type of movement in the final 30 minutes, as he's just 9-of-14 for 99 yards and a touchdown through the air, with an abysmal six carries for -17 yards on the ground.

Granted, part of that can be attributed to the Vols' offensive line, which has continued to struggle in depth tonight. 

We'll have plenty more from the second half, so stay tuned for updates there and in postgame.