What a weird game for Tennessee. So many times the Vols seemed to be on the doorstep of turning a suspected blowout into a competitive game throughout the night, but in the end costly turnovers and the inability to protect the quarterback would ultimately seal their fate as they fell to Oklahoma 34-10.
It was a game that seemed closer than the score would appear to indicate. Tennessee never quit and never gave Oklahoma the submission that it appeared the Sooners expected at times in the second half. All in all, a loss is never viewed as a good thing, but there are a lot of positives that Tennessee can take from this one as they head into a bye week before traveling to Athens in two weeks to take on the Georgia Bulldogs.
Here are some observations from tonight’s game:
O-line needs help: Not really much of a way around this one. The Vol offensive line got manhandled at the point of attack for much of the night by the Oklahoma front seven. Vol linemen will have nightmares of Oklahoma’s Eric Striker blitzing off the edge over the next two weeks as they prepare to head to Athens and face another talented defensive front. Justin Worley was on his back for most of the night and the Vol ground attack was nearly nonexistent outside of some late success behind the long runs of Jalen Hurd. The line showed glimpses of hope in the second half, so here’s hoping that they can get things sorted out over the bye week.
Hurd is ready: I know he’s a freshman and I know he still has a lot of learning to do, but Jalen Hurd showed tonight that he is the future of the running game at the University of Tennessee. The true freshman had 14 carries for a game-high 97 yards rushing and chipped in two catches for an additional 24 yards. Mike Bajakian will probably be kicking himself for not giving Hurd the ball when the Vols had 3rd and short from the Oklahoma three-yard line in the second half. Instead, he elected to empty the backfield and target Marquez North on a slant. Worley’s pass was intercepted and returned 100 yards for the Oklahoma touchdown. Hurd appears to have passed Marlin Lane at running back, although they are likely to continue to split reps moving forward.
Justin Worley is a true leader: In what had to be the most frustrating game of Justin Worley’s career, the senior handled himself with remarkable poise and class. Every time he was knocked down – and it was often – he got up and dusted himself off, never pointing fingers or doing anything to embarrass his offensive line. Worley was so impressive that after the game Bob Stoops made sure to run over to the quarterback and commend him for his gritty performance. Worley finished the night 21-of-44 for 201 yards and a touchdown, but did have two interceptions in the end zone and a fumble. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here, but there is no doubt that he turned in one of the gutsiest performances by a Vol quarterback in quite some time.
Third down defense: Tennessee’s defense has now held opponents to 10-of-43 on third downs through three games. The Vols were able to hold Oklahoma’s high-powered offense to a pedestrian 3-of-12 and really looked like they confused Sooner quarterback Trevor Knight at times. There was also a lot of talk that Oklahoma would be able to run the ball at will against the Vols and that just never came to fruition. Tennessee was able to control the Oklahoma ground attack at times and forced Oklahoma into some 3rd and long situations that the Vols would have success in. The key for Tennessee moving forward will be to improve their first and second down defense as Oklahoma was able to hit too many big plays on early downs.
Freshmen growing up: It’s hard to name them all, but many freshmen made some really nice plays for Tennessee in this game. Jalen Hurd, Josh Malone, Todd Kelly Jr, Derek Barnett, Jashon Robertson, and Coleman Thomas all saw a bunch of first team snaps and took some serious strides forward in their development. Kelly nearly had an interception on Oklahoma’s first drive, Derek Barnett was in the Oklahoma backfield consistently, Jalen Hurd popped a couple nice runs and Robertson and Thomas each appeared to settle down some in the second half and play better. Malone had a couple of catches, but needs to develop some consistency to his performance. All in all, the Vol freshmen didn’t really look like freshmen against the 4th-ranked team in the country.