KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt’s reaction to Ty Chandler’s third-quarter breakaway revealed just how much work the Volunteers still must do as they enter Southeastern Conference competition.
"He got out there and did a good job finishing that run," Pruitt said. "It's a good thing he did because I'm not sure we wouldn't have gotten another penalty (otherwise) before we got it in the end zone, so I'm glad he got in the end zone."
Tennessee's red-zone troubles prevented the Vols from pulling away from a 31-point underdog until the second half.
UTEP (0-3) hasn't led all season and has lost 15 consecutive games, the longest active skid of any Football Bowl Subdivision team. The Miners haven't won a game since beating North Texas in their 2016 season finale.
Tennessee (2-1) knows it must play better from here on out because the competition gets much tougher. Tennessee hosts Florida next weekend in its SEC opener.
"Now the real season starts," Pruitt said.
Chandler's big-play ability and Tennessee's improving defense made sure the Vols never faced a serious threat from UTEP.
On Tennessee's first play from scrimmage in the second half, Chandler ran through a giant hole on the left side of the line and raced down the sideline untouched for the Volunteers' longest run from scrimmage since LaMarcus Coker's 87-yarder in a 39-10 victory over Vanderbilt in 2006. The touchdown extended Tennessee's lead to 17-0.
Chandler had carried the ball just once this season before Saturday. He didn't play in a 59-3 blowout of East Tennessee State last week after Pruitt said he got his "bell rung" early in a season-opening 40-14 loss to No. 14 West Virgini a. In his return to action Saturday, Chandler needed just 12 carries to gain his 158 yards.
"It felt great," Chandler said. "It's just a blessing to be back out there. I was excited to be out there playing with those other guys and just doing my part and doing everything I can."
Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano was 12 of 16 for 168 yards with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Jauan Jennings. Tennessee’s defense never allowed UTEP’s offense to get beyond the Vols' 33-yard line.
"We were down by 10 at the half and had the football to start the second half," UTEP coach Dana Dimel said. "You feel like a drive there can get you back into the spot you need to be. But we go three-and-out and give up the big play on defense. That was a big two series in the ballgame, a big swing of momentum."
UTEP stayed relatively close until halftime because Tennessee scored a total of three points on its first two trips to the red zone.
The Vols settled for Brent Cimaglia’s 38-yard field goal with 2:39 left in the first quarter after a chop-block penalty nullified Chandler’s 7-yard touchdown run. On Tennessee’s next drive, Jeremy Banks fumbled on second-and-1 from the UTEP 3.
Tennessee had entered the day as one of just five Football Bowl Subdivision teams that hadn't lost a turnover this season.
UTEP: Miners quarterback Kai Locksley can make things happen with his mobility, but his lack of passing accuracy remains a major concern. Locksley went 9 of 22 for 39 yards Saturday and has completed just 41.8 percent of his passes this season. Dimel said after the game that Locksley had been dealing with an illness this week. UTEP entered Saturday with the lowest passing efficiency rating of any FBS team.
Tennessee: Pruitt said the Vols hadn't practiced particularly well this week, and that was evident from the mistakes they made in the red zone. Tennessee had done a nice job of avoiding penalties and turnovers before this game. This team has little margin for error as it enters SEC play, so those mistakes must be corrected.
The announced attendance of 87,074 included 1,067 Hurricane Florence evacuees who were given free tickets before the game.
Tenea Strayhorn of Beaufort, North Carolina , said the game provided a "perfect distraction" that allowed evacuees such as herself to think about something other than the storm for a few hours.
UTEP hosts New Mexico State on Saturday.