It wasn’t a perfect game for the Tennessee Volunteers in their first week of 2015, but a strong rushing attack and an improved defensive effort in the second half were enough to escape Nashville with a 59-30 victory over a game Bowling Green squad who kept things interesting for most of the afternoon – and into the evening thanks to an extended weather delay. And while there is certainly room for improvement and adjustments to be made before next week’s game against Oklahoma, the Vols did enough in this game to advance to 1-0 on the young season.
Here are five observations from Saturday’s action in Nashville:
Welcome Mike DeBord: While the SEC welcomed plenty of new coordinators during the offseason, none were met with less hype and fanfare than Tennessee’s offensive coordinator Mike DeBord. However, DeBord’s group was among the most impressive in the conference in week one. The Vols tallied 604 yards of total offense, 33:51 of possession and only four penalties while putting 59 points on the board against Bowling Green. And, most importantly, NO turnovers. It wasn’t a perfect performance – two of the aforementioned penalties took touchdowns off the board – but the Vols look like a group that is poised for a strong season on offense. The offensive line looked confident and prepared, and the skill positions made plays when their number was called. Next week will tell the tale, but week one was a success for Mike DeBord.
Running game: If there were any questions about what Offensive Coordinator Mike DeBord wanted Tennessee’s offense to look like, they were quickly answered on Saturday. The Vols racked up nearly 400 yards rushing against Bowling Green (399, to be exact) and pushed three players over the 80-yard mark in the process. Alvin Kamara (15 carries, 144 yards, 2 TD’s), Jalen Hurd (23 carries, 123 yards, 3 TD’s), and Josh Dobbs (12 carries, 89 yards, 1 TD) all had moments of brilliance on the ground against Bowling Green’s defense, but it was the overall balance that was the most impressive aspect of the Vols’ ground-attack. Tennessee ran left, right, and up the middle with relative ease behind a highly scrutinized offensive line, and even true freshman John Kelly (8 carries, 29 yards) had some late success after the game was already decided. Time will tell if the Vols can keep this momentum going against the better defenses on the schedule, but the game-one results were very impressive.
Josh Dobbs: The passing attack was vanilla, but Dobbs looked calm, comfortable, and downright superb at times in Mike DeBord’s offense. The junior quarterback flicked mid-range completions with ease, and never once put the ball in harms way during his three and a half quarters of action. Dobbs finished his day 15-of-22 through the air for 205 yards and two touchdowns. These stats are made even more impressive when you consider the fact that Dobbs never threw a ball further than about 25 yards in the air. He eluded pass-rushers, completed passes and even tucked it and ran on a few occasions…which is exactly what this team needs him to do. Next week will be a big test for him and this offense, but Dobbs looked very good in his first action of 2015.
Return game: When the Vols needed a spark early, they got it from the return game. Cam Sutton had three punt returns for a total of 102 yards (34-yards per return) and was a cut away from taking all three to the house. If teams choose to punt to Sutton this season, he will prove to be one of the best return-men in college football. He’s simply dynamic with the ball in his hands. Another player who is dynamic in the return-game is sophomore safety Evan Berry. Berry only had one opportunity to return a kick off in the game against Bowling Green, but he made the most of it. Berry’s lone return went for 67 yards and may have gone for six if not for a facemask penalty against Bowling Green’s kicker that brought Berry to the ground. If the Vols can continue their success in the return game, then every game on the schedule becomes winnable. Hidden yards and special teams scores can be the difference in close games, and the Vols look to be ahead of the curve in both categories.
Secondary: It was a tough night for the Vol secondary. The injuries to Rashaan Gaulden and LaDarrell McNeil over the summer didn’t help, but neither did the breaking news in the pre-game. Moments before kickoff, it was announced that secondary coach Willie Martinez had been suspended for the game due to a recruiting violation that occurred in the Spring of 2014, and his absence appeared to directly impact his group’s performance. Bowling Green’s Matt Johnson would finish with 424 passing yards and two touchdowns on 27-of-49 passing, while Falcon receivers Gehrig Dieter and Ronnie Moore combined for 12 catches, 228 yards and a touchdown – mostly against Emmanuel Moseley and Malik Foreman. While Bowling Green’s passing attack is considered to be prolific, Tennessee’s lack of success in week one came as a surprise. Martinez’s absence likely didn’t help, but Tennessee’s lack of a consistent pass rush against the Falcons didn’t either. The Vols stayed in man-coverage and were beaten over the top with regularity. If they can’t pressure the quarterback more than they did on Saturday then the secondary will need to get much better in a hurry, because Oklahoma will be sure to test the Vols early and often through the air.
Health: For a team that struggled all summer with injuries, the most important note from Saturday might be the lack of news on the injury front. The Vols appeared to escape game one without anything that even remotely resembled a serious injury, which is worth more than gold for this team as they head into an early-season showdown next Saturday against Oklahoma in Neyland Stadium. Given the trials of fall camp, getting out of the game against Bowling Green without an injury may prove to be a bigger win than the game itself.