Tennessee showed once again why everyone is so excited about its team. But the Vols also showed once again that they’re not where they need to be. Not yet at least.
At times they looked outstanding in their 35-32 road loss to the Georgia Bulldogs. At others they looked young.
Here are ten things that stood out to me as I watched from the couch:
1. Justin Worley
I went back and forth on whether Jalen Hurd or Justin Worley was the player of the game. That was while Worley sat out a few series after hurting his elbow. Once he came back in, however, it was clear that he was the straw that stirred the drink down in Athens.
It’s pointless to recount all of his balls. (Though a good half-dozen were simply brilliant.) Or quote his stats. (But I will anyway: 23-35 for 264 yards, 3 TDs, 0 picks.) Instead, I’ll just rattle off the two things kept coming to mind as I watched his performance:
1. I can’t remember another UT quarterback who improved more from one season to the next. Maybe Jonathan Crompton, but that guy had fallen so short of expectations. Plus he had a different staff that may have finally broken through. No one has improved like Worley. Not that I can remember, at least.
2. He’s way tougher physically and mentally than anyone would have thought coming into this season.
2. Jalen Hurd
Hats off to Butch Jones, Robert Gillespie and company for getting Hurd up to such a high level in such a short period of time. Particularly given the challenges of running behind an inexperienced offensive line. At the half, Hurd averaged more yards per carry in his 11 rushes (6.4) than Gurley had in his 12 (5.8). He ended the game with 119 yards (his first-ever 100-yard performance) on 24 carries and one touchdown.
Complete the following sentence: Jalen Hurd runs harder and with more heart than any UT back since _______. (Montario Hardesty?)
3. O Line Limitations / Play calling
The Vols came out with a couple of looks they’d not shown (2 RB set and the Wildcat), they spread the ball around via quick passes on first downs (Worley’s first eight completions went to SIX different Vols), then fed Hurd on very favorable down and distances which translated to great success. Then, suddenly, they didn’t.
Some on Twitter pointed to play calling, but I disagree. I point to the challenges of calling an entire game with a limited offensive line. Yes, the line looked great on those first couple of drives, but the Vols ran a ton of quick timing plays which didn’t require the line to protect for very long — plays which can’t be called too often before they turn into big plays for the defense. Tennessee had to mix it up and show it was willing to run on first down a few times in a row if they ever wanted such quick strikes to work again.
Long story short: the Vols continue to struggle at offensive line, but they have enough talent (both playing and coaching) to find ways around that issue. And hats off to the boys up front for never quitting.
4. North Needs More Touches
Speaking of play calling, Marquez North needs more touches. A couple of long balls went Josh Malone’s way, but none to North. Well, aside from the incompletion down the left side that preceded the fumbled exchange in the end zone. Either way, North still needs more touches. He only had three grabs, his lone touchdown again showcasing what a special player he is.
5. The Defense
Good News: The Bulldogs didn’t convert on a third down the entire first half!
Bad News: The Vols only forced three of them!
Still, the Vols were outstanding on third down once again. Georgia went just 1 for 10. Other quick thoughts:
1. TK Jr. is going to be a PLAYA PLAYA.
2. Jalen Reeves-Maybin might be the best player in the front seven. Huge hits. At least one sack and he almost killed someone on special teams.
3. No offense to AJ Johnson. He’s a beast, too, but Gurley made him look silly a time or two. AJ would get him back, though, and overall, he played well once again. Johnson led UT in tackles and JRM was right behind him.
4. Cam Sutton By my count (with the help of Houston Kress), Hutson Mason only threw toward Cam once in the first half. He tested the waters early in the second and it was a BADCALL.COM. Every game that kid does something special.
6. Special Teams
Matt Darr had a few outstanding punts and a strong game overall. The Vols also had a lapse or two in kick coverage, but Devrin Young’s performance negated any damage there. Particularly his 39-yard kickoff return that gave the Vols great field position, setting up the answer to Gurley’s 51-yard dagger.
But the biggest thing that stood out in this game was how few punts Tennessee returned. AGAIN. I can’t ever remember a Tennessee team that called for more fair catches than this group. And with Cam back there, I’m inclined to think this phenomenon is due to poor blocking as opposed to a gun-shy returner. It’s a real disadvantage over the course of a game. Georgia had 41 punt-return yards. Tennessee had 4. You can’t just give away field possession like that.
7. Bounces and Breaks
They went both ways.
Pig’s forward progress was ruled to be stopped, thus negating a fumble that Georgia would have returned to the house. Also, Hurd’s forward progress was NOT ruled to be stopped on a delayed draw that hit for a big gain, much of the yards coming after the contact that held him in check for a bit.
One can only wonder what might have happened had UT fallen on either of the two Georgia fumbles in the third quarter?
But the two that stuck with me the most:
1. Georgia returned a punt after clearly calling for a fair catch at the five. That should have been half the distance to the goal which would have put them back at the 2.5. And there’s a world of difference between starting a series at the 5 versus the 2.5.
On the flip side, Cam Sutton carried out a (pretty convincing) fake fair catch that fooled everyone, but Georgia was still able to somehow down the ball at the one. Two plays later, Hurd fumbled and Georgia pounced on it in the end zone to take a ten point lead.
Two tough plays on opposite ends of the field that didn’t go Tennessee’s way.
2. The fumbled exchange between Nathan Peterman and Marlin Lane looked like two guys that hadn’t gotten a ton of reps together. Peterman’s handoff was indecisive at best. Too much thought. Not enough instinct. The Vols were in field-goal range (thanks to a double reverse) when that exchange cost them the ball.
Friendly reminder: UT lost by three.
8. Further Evidence of Culture Change
1. The Vols scored the game’s first ten points. Georgia answered with 21 straight. The old Tennessee would have folded like a cheap suit at this point, yet the Vols managed to punch one in before the half to bring it to a one-possession game.
2. Todd Gurley’s 51-yarder felt all in the world like the dagger that would do in UT. But it wasn’t. Incredible poise to come back on the following possession and strike for a quick touchdown on the Worley-to-Howard pass, one of Justin’s best balls of the day.
3. How about the defense hanging in there after that long Gurley touchdown run? The Vols forced a Bulldog punt near midfield on Georgia’s next possession. In years past, if a physical running team finally broke a long one, the floodgates usually opened. These guys hung in there.
4. That punt is what led to the fumbled handoff Georgia recovered for a touchdown, but the Vols, undeterred, answered that score with yet another score of their own. Even the most optimistic probably didn’t see that one coming.
If those four points aren’t indicative of a team that believes it can win — will win — every time out, I don’t what is.
Boom. Done. Culture. Changed. It’s probably time to stop pointing it out because it’s just an indisputable fact by now.
9. Close But No Cigar
But so is this: Tennessee’s close, but they’re not there yet. For the second straight game, this team lost on a miscue that led to an easy fourth-quarter score. Tennessee couldn’t afford to give Oklahoma or Georgia any free points, but the Vols offered up freebies to both. In the most critical of junctures. Inexcusable.
The schedule is brutal. There aren’t a lot of gimme wins that remain. Which is why I still maintain, as I have since before the season started, that 5-7 or 6-6 will likely be this team’s reality come late November. BUT…
10. Vols WILL Be Favored Over Florida
…with each passing game, there’s more and more reason to believe that this team WILL get those six wins. That they WILL qualify for a much-needed bowl appearance. And the oddsmakers will see more and more reason to believe that, too. Which is why the Vols will be favored against Florida.
And if they play like they did in Athens, they’ll beat the Gators and end the streak.