They say the greatest improvement most teams show is between their first and second game. On Saturday, Tennessee didn’t look like most teams. The Vols didn’t play awful, but they didn’t play like a team that had improved from the week prior, either, or at least so I thought as I left a sun-drenched Neyland Stadium after Tennessee’s 34-19 win over Arkansas State. A global takeaway that was the sum of all the things that stood out from the seats.
Here are 10 such things in no particular order:
1. Special Teams Not So Special
No one said the special teams unit played flawlessly against Utah State, but few were as hard on them as Butch Jones. If he was hoping to light a fire under them, the matches were wet. A penalty on the opening kickoff relegated the Vols to poor field position, then a subpar punt after the ensuing three-and-out set the Red Wolves up in plus territory and led to their first score.
Cam Sutton was un-Cam like (in special teams, at least), failing to get to one punt that rolled inside the 15, bobbling another and stopping the collective heart of Neyland stadium when diving to field another.
Arkansas torched UT on a fake punt deep in its own territory which led to yet another Arkansas State touchdown. And I’ve not yet seen a replay, but let’s just say UT seemed lucky to recover the Red Wolves’ onside kick. After a review, the play stood as called, but was not confirmed.
2. Curt Maggitt
Like many, I was surprised to Curt Maggitt didn’t play more snaps against Utah State. Yesterday he seemed to be out there a more, often at the end. The good news is he played fairly well. The bad news is he seems to have lost a step, and I don’t think it’s on account of the injury. ASU quarterback Fredi Knighten can fly, so he’s going to make his fair share of folks look slow, but Maggitt looked as if he lacked enough agility to even begin to thinking about closing the angle, which made me wonder if he’d bulked up too much in anticipation of playing up front more this season. He doesn’t look as fast as I remember. Or as fast as people have told me he looked in practice last year. Not reading too much into it either way, but definitely something that stood out a time or two.
3. Third Down for What Update
Well? Did you notice? They didn’t play Third Down for What every single third down. Which is fantastic. Because I like that whole deal. Very infectious. It allows me to channel my inner Lil Jon. Plus, it justifies my gameday sizzurp consumption, which, incidentally, is significant.
My only thing with Third Down for What is that I don’t want it driven in the ground. And yesterday, it wasn’t.
But if I’m nitpicking, sometimes they played it when they could have gone without it, while other times they didn’t play it on a down that SCREAMED for it. Example: ASU faced a third and five at their own ten yard line with nine minutes to play in a two-score game. That’s a Third Down for What situation! Yet, no Third Down for What came. But that was okay because the Vols still held, a fact that compels me to share this (oddball) stat:
ASU’s third down conversion rate when Third Down for What was playing? 4-11.
ASU’s third down conversion rate when Third Down for What wasn’t playing? 0-6.
Bottom line: I’m pro Third Down for What, but I look forward to it getting dialed in a bit.
4. The Future of UT Football?
Tennessee’s first two touchdown drives were things of beauty. The second featured one of the best ball’s I’ve ever seen Worley throw. It was the first play of the second quarter, a little out route to Josh Smith on the west sideline that dropped in there perfectly and went for 21 yards. Both drives were well-paced, well-balanced attacks which struck me as the type of offense Butch Jones wants to have on Rocky Top for years and years to come. We may well have been watching the future of Tennessee football.
5. Throw to set up the Run
The million dollar question coming in was would the Volunteers’ running attack show signs of improvement. The answer was yes. But only moderate. Interesting Jalen Hurd got 10 more carries than Marlin Lane did despite averaging fewer yards per carry (3.6 vs 4.2). Neither cracked 100 yards, but both had their moments, each more than serviceable. Still, as currently operating, this is not a team that’s going to run to set up the throw. It has to throw to set up the run. The Vols have been able to do that so far, but things get a whole lot tougher next week in Norman.
6. Battle of Attrition
I was taken in the first half by how many times an ASU player went down, each occasion feeling as if the Vols had dodged a bullet. Because if UT is to have any chance of pulling off an upset in Norman, it was imperative the Vols escape Arkansas State as healthy as possible.
Von going down was like a kick in the gut. Same with Ethan Wolf. Wolf led the team in receptions with five and Pearson was tied for second with four. Von also had the longest catch of the game, a 56-yarder from Worley on the first UT scoring drive of the game.
Here’s hoping both those boys are good to go sooner than later.
7. Get Your Freak On Josh
Josh Smith is one of my favorite Vols. He’s done something to make me go “WOW” two games in a row now. Last week, it was his streaking act down the sidelines which conjured up images of Eugene. (The only images from Eugene worth remembering.) On Saturday it was the high-hurdle maneuver over a hapless ASU DB. Nasty. He gets my second one of the year.
8. Marquez North
Speaking of playas, Marquez sure is one. If the ball’s thrown up top his way and is even remotely catchable, you can rest assured these three things will happen.
1. North will rise well above the defender (who will usually be draped all over him).
2. He will make an aggressive play on the ball and pluck it out of the air with strong hands.
3. He will come down with it.
Which explains the confidence I felt the second before both his touchdown grabs.
9. A Tale of Two Halves
Justin Worley was again solid, but he didn’t close as strong as he opened. Worley was 17-24 in the first half, then just 5-14 in the second half with a fumble (he recovered) and a pick. While he overthrew a lot against Utah State, he under-threw a few against yesterday, a couple of times to North and once to Josh Malone (who was interfered with, but I digress). He also overthrew Pig Howard twice in rapid succession, both times forcing Pig just out of bounds. Back-foot throws he sailed, plain and simple.
Even so, for the second straight week, his command of the offense stood out, the indecision seemingly gone. And just as he did last week, he tucked it upon occasion to keep ASU honest, rumbling, stumbling as only he can, once all the way to the checkerboards.
In two games, Worley has thrown five touchdowns, rushed for another and compiled over 500 yards in the air. How can you not be happy about that?
10. The Defense
The defense has a big three — Cam Sutton, A.J Johnson and Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Cam pretty much shuts down one entire side of the field. I can’t remember a single time he got burned, only a catch or two underneath for modest gains. And remember the first play from scrimmage? When the Red Wolves tried to run wide only to have Cam fight off a block and make the play before the runner could hit the corner? Pass, run, it doesn’t matter. Cam’s down.
A.J. is making more tackles closer to the line of scrimmage than he’s done in his entire UT career. And Jalen Reeves-Maybin continues to serve notice that the linebacker position suits him just fine. He was in on six tackles, two of them for a loss.
TK Jr. looked at home out there, especially when he showed explosive closing speed in breaking up the long pass attempt toward the north end zone.
All that said, the defensive line didn’t pop like it did in week one. Maybe it was because after that performance, they weren’t exactly going to catch anyone off guard. Another factor had to be an Arkansas State offensive line that looked faster and more physical than Utah State’s. Plus, it’s not like they could pin their ears back with Knighten like they could against a hobbled Chuckie Keeton.
But next week they’re going to face real size and speed in the Oklahoma Sooners. And if the Vols are to have a chance, then they’re going to have to play better in virtually every facet of the game.
Can they do it? We’ll see. But one thing’s for certain.
Even if they didn’t play nearly as well as they could have yesterday, Tennessee is still bringing a far better team to Norman than they did to Eugene.