The song remained the same for Tennessee against the Rebels as all of the problems that have plagued the Vols in recent weeks found their way back onto the field tonight. Tennessee’s defense gave the offense plenty of chances early in this one, but the offense could never get anything going with enough consistency to challenge Ole Miss as the Rebels eventually pulled away down the stretch. Justin Worley was under pressure for most of the night, the ground game could never get going and Tennessee’s defense eventually wore down against a talented and persistent Ole Miss offense.
Here are five takeaways from tonight’s game:
Quarterback play: It’s pretty simple, really. Tennessee can’t win against decent teams with three turnovers from the quarterback position – and they certainly can’t beat the #3 team in the country at their place. Justin Worley threw three interceptions in this one that really killed any hope of keeping the game within reach, regardless of how well the defense could have played. Against Oklahoma, Florida and Ole Miss, Justin Worley has combined for nine turnovers and only one touchdown. Yes, his protection has been poor at times, but Worley has to do a better job of protecting the football if the Vols want to make a bowl game this season. Tennessee just isn’t getting enough out of their senior quarterback right now.
Offensive line: Tennessee’s offensive line did what most expected them to do in this one and it wasn’t pretty. Ole Miss’ talent along the front seven gave the Vols’ young offensive line trouble all night long, sacking Justin Worley seven times during the game. Injuries to Coleman Thomas and Marcus Jackson didn’t help the cause and also forced Tennessee into playing Jacob Gilliam – still recovering from an ACL tear – more than they probably wanted to in this one. There was no push in the ground game – and I mean NO push. Tennessee was credited with 28 rushing attempts on the night for a combined ZERO yards. The odds of fixing this offensive line in 2014 probably aren’t realistic, but the Vols may need to readjust scheme and personnel again after this one in hopes of finding some more consistency.
Josh Malone: There weren’t a ton of positives tonight, but Josh Malone made some plays for Tennessee against the Rebels in this one. The freshman finished the night with five catches for 75 yards and showed flashes of the ability that led to his five-star ranking coming out of high school. Malone would have likely had his first touchdown of the season in the first half had he gotten his head turned around faster on a deep route in the second quarter. The safety on Malone’s side dropped underneath and Worley threw a nice ball to the void that fell incomplete. It’s a freshman mistake by Malone not to recognize the coverage and adjust accordingly. In time, plays like that will come easy for him, but his athleticism and natural ability still allowed him to shine in this one.
Defensive game plan: It appeared that the plan for Tennessee’s defense in this one was to try and rattle Bo Wallace. A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt, and most of the defensive linemen were often seen talking with Wallace long after the whistle had blown in an attempt to gain an emotional edge. Bo responded early with some questionable play and shaky throws, but after it was clear that Tennessee’s offense could do nothing to challenge the Ole Miss defense, Wallace eventually settled down and threw two touchdown passes after the first quarter. I still give the defense a lot of credit in this one; they gave the offense plenty of chances early in the game and had a lot of exceptional plays that simply went unrewarded. Wallace was sacked five times in the game by the Vol defense and Ole Miss’ All-American candidate at receiver, Laquon Treadwell, was held to only four catches for 43 yards.
Expectations: People (fans) are mad after this one, but tonight’s outcome shouldn’t really come as a surprise. An already poor Vol offensive line was forced to deal with injuries that it could not afford, Tennessee turned it over four times, there was no resemblance of a running game, and the defense eventually wore down…All of this was while facing the 3rd-ranked team in the country at their place. The Rebels also claim the most balanced defense in the SEC, ranking in the top-4 in the league in nearly every major statistical category. Basically, this was a matchup nightmare for Tennessee offensively and the defense – as well as they played – was again forced to play too many snaps with their backs against the wall. This team is improving but the margin for error is still paper thin, and that was on full display tonight.