KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee is undefeated but still must deal with some major losses as it heads into Southeastern Conference competition.
Joshua Dobbs threw a pair of 20-yard touchdown passes to Josh Malone and ran for a third score as the 15th-ranked Volunteers overcame injuries and a suspension to hold off pesky Ohio 28-19 on Saturday.
The Volunteers, who have won nine straight games over the last two years, now must wait and see how healthy they’ll be heading into next week’s SEC opener with No. 23 Florida.
“We’re decimated right now with injuries,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
Tennessee (3-0) played Saturday without four starters — three were injured and defensive back Malik Foreman was suspended for a violation of team rules. During the first half, the Vols also lost two team captains to injuries — cornerback Cam Sutton and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
“When those two went down, we all got together as a defense and we were determined we were going to win this game for those two,” linebacker Cortez McDowell said.
Jones said Sutton would be out “an extended period of time,” though the nature of the four-year starter’s injury wasn’t specified. Jones was optimistic Reeves-Maybin could return from his shoulder injury as early as next week but said the linebacker’s status remained uncertain.
Tennessee also is waiting to learn how soon linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., defensive end LaTroy Lewis, receiver Josh Smith can return from injuries that sidelined them Saturday. Their absences resulted in featured roles for backups such as former walk-on linebacker Colton Jumper and freshman cornerback Baylen Buchanan.
Ohio had its own injury issues. The Bobcats made the trip without injured running backs Maleek Irons and A.J. Ouellette. Running back Dorian Brown got hurt during the game.
“They’ve got a good football team,” Ohio coach Frank Solich said of Tennessee. “They’re very athletic and they played hard. All in all it was good football game. We just kind of ran out of bodies.”
Tennessee scored 38 seconds into the game on the first TD pass from Dobbs to Malone. The Vols continued to lead the rest of the way, though Ohio stayed close throughout.
Ohio, a 27-point underdog, was within 21-19 when Dobbs and Malone connected again with 11:07 left in the game. Ohio (1-2) wouldn’t threaten again.
Malone has caught four of Dobbs’ six touchdown passes this season.
Ohio’s Louie Zervos was 4 of 4 on field-goal attempts and Sebastian Smith caught nine passes for 156 yards.
Ohio: The Bobcats have never beaten a Top 25 team but had a real chance to pull off a history-making victory if they’d capitalized on opportunities. Ohio didn’t recover any of Tennessee’s five fumbles, and the Bobcats’ offense continually settled for short field-goal attempts rather than reaching the end zone. The failure to finish drives has been a recurring problem for Ohio. Zervos is 13 of 14 on field-goal attempts.
Tennessee: The Vols won but made plenty of mistakes they can’t afford to repeat once SEC play starts. Not only did they fumble five times, they also committed nine penalties.
“The penalties are inexcusable. The balls on the ground are inexcusable. I’m pulling my hair out,” Jones said.
Tennessee’s second lackluster effort likely will cause the Vols to drop a few spots. Tennessee opened with a 20-13 overtime victory over 20 ½-point underdog Appalachian State.
OFFENSIVE LINE SHUFFLE
Tennessee altered its offensive line by having sophomore Jack Jones replace redshirt freshman Drew Richmond with three other players switching positions.
Ohio hosts Football Championship program Gardner-Webb in its last game before opening Mid-American Conference play.
Tennessee hosts No. 23 Florida, which has beaten the Vols 11 straight times.
Online: AP College Football website www.collegefootball.ap.org