Despite Oklahoma controlling most of the game, Tennessee found itself hanging in the game early in the fourth quarter in Norman on Saturday night.
It’s the classic recipe for a double-digit road underdog. Just stay in it – give yourself a chance at the end. The Vols (2-1) were doing just that – facing a 3rd-and-goal from the OU 2 with 11 minutes remaining in the game and down by 17. A touchdown would’ve cut the lead to 10 points with over 10 minutes still remaining in the game.
That’s when a mistake all but ended UT’s upset bid. The Vols went with a passing play – a three-man route combo to quarterback Justin Worley’s left. Worley looked for Marquez North on a quick stop route, but an OU defender got a hand on it. Cornerback Julian Wilson did the rest, grabbing the deflected ball and racing 100 yards to give the No. 4 Sooners (3-0) the final score in what was a 34-10 OU victory.
“I’m proud of the way our guys fought,” coach Butch Jones said after the game. “It’ll be a great reference point moving on, for what it takes to play winning football on the road, and giving yourself an opportunity to win the football game. You can’t have mistakes; you can’t have mistakes at critical moments in the game.”
Jones also pointed to a first-half mistake that he deemed critical as well. With just under three minutes remaining in the first half, Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine rushed for 2 yards before the ball was jarred loose and cornerback Cam Sutton ripped it away from the freshman. Officials ruled Perine down. Tennessee challenged the play.
Perine appeared to lose possession before briefly pinning the ball back between his body and his elbow as his knee went down and Sutton ripped it away. An officiating analyst on the ABC’s broadcast believed it should be ruled a fumble. So did Jones.
“I felt confident it was a fumble,” Jones said after the game.
The officials and the replay crew didn’t agree. The call was upheld and Oklahoma marched 29 more yards with a Keith Ford 11-yard touchdown run capping off the drive to put Oklahoma up 20-7 shortly before halftime.
“You never know which plays are going to make the difference,” Jones said. “I thought that the one critical play was at the end of the first half. You’re hoping to go in, possibly 13-7 at halftime and we get a turnover off the field that doesn’t go our way, and they score a touchdown. It kind of changes momentum a little bit.”
Worley – despite three total turnovers – battled to keep the Vols in it. The senior quarterback was pounded for five sacks and was hit more than any Tennessee quarterback in several years. He finished the game 21-of-44 for 201 yards with one touchdown, two interceptions and one lost fumble.
He hit Josh Smith, who was filling in for the injured Von Pearson, for a 40-yard touchdown at the 9:46 mark of the second quarter to cut OU’s lead to 13-7. One of his interceptions was Wilson’s 100-yard pick-6. The other was on a pass in the corner of the end zone intended for Jason Croom – a ball Croom got his hands on, but OU cornerback Zach Sanchez ended up with on a nice pick. But it was the amount of pressure Worley faced all night that was the story. The senior captain didn’t complain.
“I’ll definitely be sore tomorrow,” Worley said. “I got hit a lot. I was able to get back up though and keep fighting. The offensive line did a good job. They knew they had a tough test ahead of them with the size of those guys and the scheme they put together but I’m proud of them – they did a good job.”
After a scarce rushing attack in the first half, freshman Jalen Hurd broke through for a couple long runs in the second half. Second-half runs of 29 and 43 yards by Hurd were the longest of the season for the Vols and gave him 97 yards on the ground for the evening.
“We just kept pounding and pounding the ball,” Hurd said. “The offensive line did a great job opening up those holes. I just tried to run as hard as I could and behind them I felt comfortable. “
The scoreboard showed a fairly decisive win for the Sooners, but the Vols can take a lot from Saturday night’s contest and build on it heading into a bye week before a massive two-game stretch against conference foes Georgia and Florida. The Vols got Hurd going, saw toughness from Worley, only had one penalty and, ultimately, were a couple plays away from making it at least interesting against the No. 4 team on the road.
Jones reiterated that losing isn’t acceptable at Tennessee after the game. But for a program still squarely in the middle of rebuilding, it was another teaching experience and another opportunity to keep getting better.
“There’s a reason they’re the fourth ranked team in the country,” Jones said. “They’re a junior and senior-dominated team upfront. They do a great job schematically. They’re well coached. We knew that. It was a great growing-up session for our youngsters, but I thought at times we did some really good things … We will go back and work to be a better football team in this bye week.”