On a night that saw Lane Kiffin make his overhyped return to Knoxville after a four year absence, all of the attention for Tennessee fans was on who the Vols would trot out to start the game at quarterback. News began to leak late in the week that Justin Worley’s shoulder injury suffered last Saturaday against Ole Miss may have indeed been more severe than initially suspected, and that fear was realized when the starting quarterback was announced. Redshirt sophomore Nathan Peterman would ultimately get the start, but would quickly give way to true sophomore Josh Dobbs.
Had Tennessee’s defense started the game as well as they finished it, the Vols may have had an opportunity to win this game down the stretch based on what the offense was able to accomplish once they settled down. Josh Dobbs used his arm and his legs to ignite Neyland Stadium and breathe life into a Vol offense that had struggled mightily in recent weeks. But on this night, four Alabama touchdowns in the game’s first 18 minutes would be too much to overcome for Dobbs and the rest of the offense.
There were certainly negatives to take away from this game for Tennessee, but also a lot of positives as they head into a four-game stretch of winnable matchups to close out the season. Here are five observations from last night’s game:
Dobbs era begins: The plan all along for 2014 was for Dobbs to redshirt, but the injury to Justin Worley left the coaches little choice but to burn it and start playing for the future. And if last night was any indication, the future is bright. Against an Alabama defense that had only given up more than 60 rushing yards to opposing teams three times in 2014 heading into Saturday’s game, Josh Dobbs put up 75 yards on the ground by himself. That’s only 14 fewer yards than Arkansas rushed for as a team against the Crimson Tide two weeks ago. Dobbs looked confident, he looked fluid…and he looked fast against an Alabama team that is about as fast as they come on the defensive side of the football. Josh Dobbs also became only the second quarterback to have multiple passing touchdowns against the Tide this season. Clearly, this offense suits Josh Dobbs and he is comfortable running it. I think it safe to say that the position is his moving forward, and if last night was any indicator, then Vol fans should be very excited about the future at quarterback.
Amari Cooper is good: Stating the obvious here, but wow. Heading into this game, Tennessee’s defense knew they would have to contain Amari Cooper if they wanted to have any shot of winning this game. Apparently, you cannot contain Amari Cooper when he is healthy. After suffering through knee issues against Ole Miss and Arkansas, Cooper has absolutely exploded in his last two games against Texas A&M and Tennessee. In those two games, Cooper has a combined 17 catches for 364 and 4 touchdowns. Alabama’s entire passing offense is designed to create mismatches with Cooper and the Tide started early with him last night. On Alabama’s first play from scrimmage, Cooper would drag across the field on an underneath pattern and come out free on the other side. Blake Sims found Cooper with a flick of his wrist and the speedster outran Tennessee’s defense for an 80-yard touchdown. On the season, Cooper now has 71 catches for 1,132 and 9 touchdowns – I think it’s safe to say that he is one of the best two receivers in the college game right now, along with Kevin White of West Virginia.
Wide Receiver U: It wasn’t a huge game for anyone in particular, but I felt like the receivers finally stepped up in this game. I don’t know if it was the atmosphere, the opponent or the new blood at quarterback, but this group just seemed to have a little more energy than they have in recent weeks. Josh Malone only had one catch this week after having five against Ole Miss, but the freshman made the most of it and hauled in his first touchdown as Vol with a nine-yard snag in the corner of the end zone midway through the second quarter. Marquez North had four catches for 56 yards and finally looked like the Marquez North we all expected to see this season. North had a nice catch down the sidelines in traffic and made an amazing diving catch – albeit for minimal yardage – near the goal line. Von Pearson also found the end zone in this game and looks to be finally recovered from an ankle injury suffered against Arkansas State. If this group can get Josh Smith back by Kentucky, then you have to like their chances to close the season out very strong.
O-Line: Tennessee’s move to put Brett Kendrick at left tackle, slide Kyler Kerbyson in to left guard and start Jacob Gilliam at right tackle really worked well in this game. Tennessee’s offensive line – the same one that gave up five sacks against UTC and five more last week against Ole Miss – held Alabama’s pass rush at bay for most of the night and provided some rushing lanes that had been absent all season. Obviously, the added mobility of Josh Dobbs certainly helped the O-Line out on a few occasions, but I thought that this may have been this group’s best game of the season – especially when you consider the opponent – regardless of who was at quarterback. The Vols allowed just two sacks against the Crimson Tide (tied for fewest allowed by Tennessee in a game this season) and amassed 181 rushing yards (most by Tennessee in a game this season) in a contest where most people expected a bloodbath. This is a great game for this group to build on and move forward into the final four games of the season. The final four games will feature defenses that are decisively less talented than the Alabama group they saw last night, so the Vols should take some confidence out of last night’s performance.
Running game: Clearly, Josh Dobbs had a lot to do with Tennessee’s ability to put up season-high rushing numbers against Alabama, but Tennessee’s running backs also did their part. In a game that saw Tennessee forced to pass the ball more than they would like to in an attempt to catch up, Tennessee’s running backs made the most of their carries and provided some reason for optimism moving forward. Jalen Hurd and Marlin Lane combined for 19 carries and 107 yards against an Alabama rush defense that is among the best in the country. Hurd ran extremely hard and showed no hesitation in lowering his previously injured shoulder to punish defenders, while Marlin Lane showed a burst of speed that had eluded him all season on a nice 44-yard run down the right sideline to set up Tennessee’s first touchdown of the day. With those two players healthy, Dobbs at quarterback, a growing confidence in Derrell Scott and an offensive line that appears to have found their best combination of the season, there is reason for Tennessee fans to be optimistic about the running game moving forward.