I was watching the Georgia-South Carolina game when one of the triplets sprinted into my room with urgent news. “Our ball’s stuck in the tree. We need your help.” It was a beach-ball deal that would easily dislodge once hit with a heavier ball, or so I thought before tagging it squarely with a soccer ball only to find it didn’t budge an inch.
So I navigated the brush that serves as the property line between our house and the neighbor’s to get directly beneath it. Better angle, better result was the hope. Two of my boys followed me in. Mere seconds into our initiative, Jack began screaming a scream I’d never heard before. Until Luke and I screamed the exact same one mere seconds later, all three of us emerging from the brush as if on fire, each sporting a halo of swarming yellow jackets. Luke got stung once, I got stung four times and poor Jack got seven or eight.
But the swarm we faced was nothing compared to the swarming defense Justin Worley had to contend with in Norman last night. Like me and my crew, the Vols stirred up a hornets’ nest yesterday, my overarching takeaway from last night’s Tennessee-Oklahoma game.
Here’s are some things that stood out to me from the 34-10 affair as I watched from the couch:
1. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto…
It was evident from the very first play that Oklahoma presented a major upgrade in talent for the Vols, as Pig got stuffed on the jet sweep before I’d even had a chance to prop my feet on the ottoman. I knew the Sooner defense would be fast and physical. And I expected some lumps along the way. But I was taken aback at just how early and often those lumps were delivered. Which is why I was puzzled UT tried more than a couple of times to make something happen with slow-developing plays. Particularly given the…
2. O-line woes
Coming into the game, I thought that both lines would get exposed. I was half right. The offensive line most certainly got exposed. (The defensive line, however? They got held! More on them in a bit.) Real concerns here. Of the season-long variety, I’m afraid. Put simply, the offensive line is light years away from where Tennessee needs it to be. To compound matters, Oklahoma’s got a nasty front seven, none of them nastier than Eric Striker. And the offensive line simply had no answer for the Sooner attack. And that affected every single thing the Vols tried to do on offense.
But I thought the D-line held its own, in my estimation, playing better than the secondary which is arguably the best unit of Tennessee’s young defense. And even if that secondary didn’t have its best game, the overall defense was still very serviceable, which is an odd takeaway to have from a game in which the D gave up over 450 yards of total offense. Worth noting, a big chunk of those happened on a few busted plays. Also worth noting, said plays were UT’s first such lapses this entire season.
Even so, they had many more good moments than bad, stiffening up on several occasions to help keep UT in it. They forced consecutive three-and-outs in the second quarter which allowed UT to get the ball in decent field position with a chance to actually take the lead. The D forced another three-and-out that set up the UT drive which ended with the heartbreaking pick-six.
And don’t forget the fourth-down stop. Which (obviously) followed one of Tennessee’s many third-down stops. The Vols held the Sooners to just 3-12 on third down conversions. All things considered (particularly opponent and locale), the defense played reasonably well.
4. A.J. Johnson
A.J. was in on 11 total tackles, five of them unassisted, and the majority seemed to come within three yards of the line of scrimmage. This kid is a textbook example of what can be gained by coming back for another year. Johnson has elevated his play to a level I wasn’t sure he was capable of reaching. Put another way: all that hype coming into 2013? While he may not have lived up to it last year, he’s actually surpassed it thus far in 2014.
5. An elite future
It was clear last night that this defense has the potential to be good. As in elite-good. One that Vol Nation might recall fondly for sometime to come. While I’m more inclined to think that won’t truly actualize till next year, I wouldn’t rule this year out just yet. Lots of ball left to be played.
Players like Barnett, O’Brien, Owen Williams, Vereen, Reeves-Maybin, Sutton, Randolph, McNeil and TK Jr. are all playing on a high level — are all making regular and significant impacts — and all have at least one year of eligibility left. I’m sure I’m leaving someone out, but how could you not with all those dynamic players that are stepping up?
You know one thing I didn’t do before sitting down to write this? Review Justin Worley’s stats. They didn’t matter to me. No way they could tell the entire story we saw unfold on the field.
It’s not because he’s the quarterback. And it’s not some act he’s carrying out for the good of the team. Justin Worley is the leader of Team 118. At least on the offensive side of the ball. So often last season he looked like he was in over his head. And if there were ever a game where he could have — should have — looked in over his head, it would have been this one. In Norman. Versus an elite team. At night. Getting pounded so early. Getting flattened so often. Getting knocked around so hard that even Matt Simms felt sorry for him. In a game that saw him turn the ball over three times, to boot.
Yet Worley never looked like he was in over his head. Not once.
I get it. Justin Worley isn’t your typical zone-read quarterback. He’s more of a pro-style guy. And maybe his ceiling’s only so high. But even if Justin Worley isn’t the perfect example of what of what being a zone-read quarterback is all about, he’s most definitely the perfect example of what being a Tennessee Volunteer is all about. Or at least he was last night.
On a team with its fair share of tough players, he may be the toughest one of the entire bunch.
7. Josh Smith
Another guy who epitomizes what it means to be a Vol is Josh Smith. UT’s played three games and Smith has had jaw-dropping plays in each of them. For a guy his size to play as tough as he does against the Arkansas States of the world is one thing. But for a guy his size to play even tougher against a nasty, physical team like Oklahoma is another thing altogether.
Including the touchdown, he caught five balls, just one fewer than North (who led the team), four of them producing 18 physical, well-earned and important yards.
Folks may recall him as a guy who has his fair share of sexy plays. But make no mistake about it. That dude brings his lunch box, too.
8. Jalen Hurd
When I saw his line flash across the television — 97 yards on 14 carries — I couldn’t have been the only one who was hoping he’d get three more to give him something it sure felt like he earned. His first 100-yard performance in orange. It wasn’t meant to be. But Jalen showed the world that he, indeed, is meant to be. And will be. A great back at Tennessee.
Team 118, especially given its challenges at offensive line, is one that will have to throw to set up the run. But they ran into such a buzz saw last night that even with modest success through the air, they still couldn’t open any running lanes. That’s when it started to get really ugly in the third. When the defense pinned their ears back and came after Worley the fastest and hardest.
That game could have turned into an embarrassing one (think Eugene) had the Vols not found a way to keep them honest. Late in the third, Hurd did just that with the nifty play around the right-side that went for 43.
No. 1 looked fantastic last night.
9. Tennessee was not intimidated
Take all the previous eight points, throw them in a pot of water and bring it to a boil till everything evaporates, and the residue that’s left is this:
The Tennessee Volunteers were not intimidated last night. Not even one iota.
Someone on Twitter was saying that this might have been a great game to buy out. Especially when you consider that the Vols might only be favored in three more contests (if that) for the rest of the year. When you consider that Team 118 stands a real chance of finishing this season with a mere five wins.
But I don’t care if it cost 50 cents. I wouldn’t have bought out that game for anything. That was big-time, man. No. 4 team. Under the lights. Chris Fowler and Herbie on the call. And the boys in orange didn’t think twice. All instinct. Played hard. They grew up a little last night.
Can you think of any better opponent, any better location, any better time to prepare a young team for the SEC than Oklahoma in Norman at night?
My stance hasn’t changed since before the season. This team will either go 5-7 or 6-6. But given how they represented themselves last night, I’m growing more confident that Butch will get another signature win this year.
Which means I’m inching ever closer toward 6-6.
Third and two from the OU four, a little under eleven minutes left. Despite facing a swarming defense, despite their limited ability to run the ball, despite all the lumps that Worley had taken, there they were. The un-ranked Tennessee Volunteers, four yards away from making this thing too close for comfort for the fine folks of Norman, Oklahoma.
North, the logical target. The ball a touch inside. The deflection. The pick. The return. The touchdown. The ballgame.
That heartbreaking play is the perfect microcosm for where this team is. Tantalizingly close to being right in the thick of things — to being relevant again. But not quite there.
We’ll learn a lot more in two weeks.