Offense Soars, Secondary Falters as Vols Prevail Over BGSU

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    NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee’s enhanced offense debuted under Mike DeBord with an impressive 59 points and 604 yards  against Bowling Green on Saturday evening at Nissan Stadium.

    The Vols left Nashville, however, with a lot of questions on the other side of the ball after giving up 30 points and 557 yards to their Mid-American Conference foes.

    There was a surprise one-game suspension served by defensive backs coach Willie Martinez announced just before kickoff, a one-hour and 20 minute lightning delay, a rogue fan who ran on the field during the delay and just about anything else bizarre that could be imagined for a season opener. Many hours after kicking off the season in front of a strongly-partial UT crowd of 61,323, the Vols (1-0) left with something to build on, but plenty to correct as well.

    “It’s hard to win, and we had a lot of things go against us, some adversity, some we created for ourselves,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said after the game. “But I liked the way our players responded.”

    Adversity started early for the Vols. With Martinez absent from booth for UT, the secondary struggled for much of the game, giving up 424 passing yards to BGSU quarterback Matt Johnson, who set a new personal career high and had the eighth-best passing performance in program history in the progress. Receiver Gehrig Dieter, a former transfer from SMU, was Johnson’s top target, hauling in seven catches for 133 yards and a touchdown. He smoked UT cornerback Emmanuel Moseley consecutive times early in the second quarter to pull the Falcons back to within 21-17 after UT held a 21-3 edge at one point early.

    And while Jones said that missing Martinez did hurt with communication on the defensive side of the ball, the struggles in pass defense were caused by a variety of factors, not just his absence or errors by UT’s defensive backs.

    “You know the naked eye you want to point to the [secondary], but it starts with the generation of a pass rush, it starts with your drops at the linebackers, sometimes your linebackers being in man coverage,” Jones said. “So I think it’s too early to really sit here and say what happened. I’ll be honest with you, players make plays. There were a couple throws that they made and catches that they made that you couldn’t have been any more perfect for coverage and that’s the game of football. Everyone’s going to have success at some point in time. That’s why we talk about a snap and clear mentality with everything that we do.”

    With the defense struggling for much of the afternoon, Tennessee relied on its offense and special teams – both of which hit a different gear on Saturday it seemed. The Vols exposed a much-maligned Bowling Green defense, piling up almost 400 yards on the ground and adding 205 yards through the air.

    Jalen Hurd (123 yards) and Alvin Kamara (144) teamed up for a combined five touchdowns and became the first Vol duo since 2009 (Bryce Brown, Montario Hardesty vs. Western Kentucky) to both run for 100 yards in a game. It was Kamara’s 56-yard touchdown run on the final offensive play of the third quarter that gave the Vols a 49-30 lead, and perhaps officially put the game out of reach for a resilient Bowling Green (0-1) team.

    Dobbs added 89 yards and a TD with his feet. Even reserve John Kelly looked strong late, picking up 29 yards on eight fourth-quarter carries.

    “I thought we were able to control the line of scrimmage, run the football, and I was really proud of the offensive line and the backs, and even the wideouts,” Jones said.

    Special teams made the offense’s job even easier. Cam Sutton averaged 34 yards per attempt on three punt returns, while Evan Berry returned a kickoff 67 yards, helping the Vols win the field position battle decisively throughout the contest.

    “My front 10,” Sutton said of what he credited his success in the return game to. “They do a great job, even in practice. They are locked in and tuned in at practice, getting extra film in to study their guys that they’re faced up with on punt return. Then, they can create lanes for me to run through.”

    But even with the success on offense and special teams, UT’s performance left plenty of concerns in all three phases of the game. Sophomore kicker Aaron Medley, who Jones praised in preseason camp, uncharacteristically missed two manageable field-goal attempts (42, 29 yards) and put one kickoff out of bounds. The defense routinely left Bowling Green receivers open and gave up three fourth-down conversions. And the offense, despite its gaudy numbers, did negate two touchdowns due to penalties.

    No. 25 Tennessee will need to make some quick adjustments and improvements with a huge challenge coming to Neyland Stadium next week in No. 19 Oklahoma (1-0), which easily defeated Akron 41-3 on Saturday.

    “I’ll say it right now, I think they’re one of the most underrated football teams in the country,” Jones said of OU. “I think they’re going to be a great, great challenge, so we have to get better in a hurry. We have to shore some things up and our players understand that. They know that.”