On one of the craziest and most unexpected days of college football this season, Tennessee took care of business and earned the SEC Eastern Division’s lone win on Rivalry Weekend. That’s right…Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina and, obviously, Vanderbilt all lost on a day that saw Tennessee walk off the field as winners in Nashville.
It wasn’t always crisp, it wasn’t always pretty and it wasn’t what most people expected, but the Vols made the most of some key opportunities, overcame some injuries and fought through adversity on numerous occasions on their way to a 24-17 victory over in-state rival Vanderbilt. This win gives Tennessee their sixth of 2014 and makes them eligible for the program’s first post-season appearance since the 2010-2011 season.
Here are five takeaways from the game:
Secondary steps up: In a game where Joshua Dobbs wasn’t having his best night, Tennessee’s secondary did their best to make things equally as difficult – if not moreso – on Vanderbilt signal-callers. Commodores’ starting quarterback Johnny McCrary finished his night 2-of-7 passing for 18 yards, and would not see the field again after throwing an end zone interception to Tennessee’s Justin Coleman early in the second quarter. After McCrary was benched, Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason elected to roll with Knoxville-native Patton Robinette the rest of the way. Robinette would have his moments, including a strong 36-yard touchdown pass to tight end Steven Scheu, but would also serve up an interception apiece to Vol safeties Brian Randolph and Todd Kelly Jr. It was a true “bend-but-don’t-break” performance from the secondary tonight in a game where they needed it. As a team, Vanderbilt finished the night 13-of-30 through the air for 149 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. Vol defensive backs did well to prevent the big plays that have haunted them in recent weeks and made plays of their own when given the opportunity.
Overcoming adversity: No Josh Smith, no Marquez North, no Jason Croom, and, after only five carries on Saturday, no Jalen Hurd. The offensive line was banged up and Joshua Dobbs was struggling with his control of the football…Yet, somehow, Tennessee’s offense was able to do enough in the second and third quarters to put up critical points and get the win. A lot of credit has to go to Joshua Dobbs and Marlin Lane for what they were able to do on the ground against the Commodores. With Jalen Hurd going down early, the burden of the ground game – which was ultimately the entire offense – fell on those two players, and their effort proved to be the difference. Lane and Dobbs would combine for 37 carries and 142 rushing yards against Vanderbilt; and while Dobbs may get the credit for the touchdowns, it was Lane who set each of them up with long runs to get the Vol offense into the red zone. As mentioned above, it wasn’t always pretty; but considering the hand they were dealt, credit Tennessee’s offense for having enough in the tank to scratch out a win.
Cam Sutton: In case you wondering whether or not it was coincidence that teams have elected not to give Cam Sutton the opportunity to return punts this season, his return against the Commodores should answer any and all questions. With 8:34 remaining in the opening quarter, Sutton fielded a line drive punt on his 24-yard-line. What happened next was pure poetry. Sutton started to his left to allow his blockers to set up, and found himself all alone after two sharp cutbacks allowed him to clear the defenders by the time he reached midfield. At that point it was nothing more than a footrace between Cam Sutton and a guy who is nowhere near as fast as Cam Sutton – which is always good for the team who claims Cam Sutton. His return put Tennessee on the board and gave them all of the early momentum in this game. No one knew at the time just how important those seven points would prove to be, but, needless to say, they were vital for the Vols in securing victory.
Maggitt/Barnett: These two players have been absolutely outstanding over the second half of the season and Saturday evening in Nashville was no exception. Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett would finish the game with a combined 10 tackles, four tackles for loss and three sacks; but they were consistently forcing Vanderbilt passers to move around in the pocket or take off running long before their receivers had a chance to complete their routes. The duo now complete the regular season with 21 combined sacks to go along with 34.5 tackles for loss – just a sensational improvement from last season for this team from a pass-rushing perspective. Speaking of perspective…as a team, Tennessee only collected 18 sacks during the 2013 season, so Barnett’s and Maggitt’s effort this season shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Bowl Bound: By far, the most important bullet-point to come out of this game for Tennessee is this one. For the first time since Derek Dooley’s first season at the helm (try not to break something), the Tennessee Volunteers are going bowling. This season also marks the first time since 2009 that a the final record has been better than the previous year’s. The Vols are improving, and the fact that this team will now go to a bowl is tangible proof that things are getting better. With all that this team had to deal with on and off of the field over the course of the season, and especially down the stretch, to reach a bowl game is truly an accomplishment worth celebrating. Obviously, the goal at Tennessee is championships, and bowl games should be an afterthought; but after the coaching turnover and NCAA turmoil during the last five seasons, to reach a bowl and give these seniors a chance to go out with a sense of accomplishment is a very powerful thing. Tennessee will have to wait until next Sunday to learn the exact date and location of their bowl appearance, but they get to take this week to enjoy the fact that everyone on this roster will now get to play in the first bowl game of their career – wherever they end up.