Where to start? Maybe last year around the same time, in the same venue with the same familiar Checkerboard pattern making Neyland Stadium a picturesque scene.
Florida was in town at that point and it was UT’s chance to make a statement to the nation that the Vols were taking the next step – moving beyond the frustrating prior years that varied between mediocre and bad. And the Vols did just that, for a few quarters at least in that 2014 meetings. The Vols, though sloppy for much of that game, took a 9-0 lead into the fourth quarter against the Gators on that day, but missed opportunities came back to hurt UT. Florida clawed its way back, jumping on top 10-9 late and sealing the win with a late interception.
Fast-forward a year. It felt all too familiar for the Vols. A two-score lead, a chance to take a big step for the program on the national stage and a huge win so close that it could almost be tasted. This year it felt like even more of a sure thing. A 17-0 lead early, a 17-3 lead with under nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter. UT had it, but at the same time never did.
The questions about the decision on the opening drive to settle for a field goal despite making it to the 1-yard line seemed to linger. The missed opportunities, the penalties, the questionable calls, the escapes by OU quarterback Baker Mayfield, the injuries – they all seemed to be foreshadow that Checker Neyland, Part II was heading down a similar path as the first version. Tennessee’s late collapse – the largest in the history of Neyland Stadium per ESPN Stats and Information – felt all too familiar, but all too painful for the Vols in a 31-24 double-overtime loss to the Sooners on Saturday night.
“It definitely is [a letdown.],” said linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who finished with 21 total tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and three TFLs in the losing effort. “When we’re in here, we’re trying to get that win every time, for the fans, for us, for the coaches, just for the whole Vol Nation. When we’ve got them on the ropes and we let them off, it’s not a good feeling.”
“This definitely is a hard one to take,” added senior offensive lineman Kyler Kerbyson. “But we’ve got to, you know, bounce back. We’ve got to get ready for Western Carolina and get ready for SEC play.”
Two fourth quarter drives by the visiting Sooners (2-0) changed the complexion of the game. They marched a combined 27 plays and 140 yards – holding the ball for over 10 minutes – on their last two possessions of regulation, erasing the 14-point deficient to the Vols (1-0). Mayfield’s final stat line wasn’t overly impressive, but the Texas Tech transfer who won the starting QB job for the Sooners this offseason was clutch in the fourth, regularly escaping UT defenders to extend plays and avoid catastrophe.
His 5-yard touchdown pass to Sterling Shepard with 40 seconds remaining sent the game to overtime.
And while it felt to some like somewhat of a formality from that point after the Vols had seen this scene last year and several other times before in recent years, the offense stepped up early in overtime. Jalen Hurd, who recorded his third-straight 100-yard rushing performance, punched in an 8-yard touchdown run on the first possession of OT, shifting the pressure back to OU.
The Sooners responded, though. Down to a fourth-and-goal with the game on the line from the 1, Mayfield found the end zone to extend the game. It took OU just three plays on its next drive in overtime to find the end zone. Tennessee couldn’t answer. Dobbs’ pass on third-and-12 was intercepted by Oklahoma cornerback Zach Sanchez to preserve the victory.
That was the end to a frustrating late-game performance for an offense that had just 82 yards on 44 plays from the time they built the early 17-0 lead in the second quarter. The Vols couldn’t consistently block the Sooners in the second half, receivers struggled to get open and UT lost its rhythm and confidence on that side of the ball for much of the final 30 minutes of the game and overtime.
“We’ve got to pick it up moving forward,” said Dobbs, who finished 13-of-31 for 125 yards with one TD and one INT. “We know that they started pressuring us, hitting us up in the second half. They made adjustments like any good defense is going to do. We have to be able to adjust on the fly.”
Head coach Butch Jones didn’t fault the effort, instead citing mistakes and UT’s inability to take advantage of opportunities.
“Obviously, in a game like this, you have to take advantage of your field position,” Jones said in his post-game remarks. “It’s all about negative plays. You can’t have pre-snap penalties and you can’t have negative plays. Too many times we were second and 15, first and 15. That’s really, really hard to overcome versus a talented defense with which they have.”
“They give us everything that they have and I love them. – I’m proud of them,” Jones continued. “We came up short but they laid it on the line. They played hard. And [Oklahoma] made one more play than we did. That’s all you can ask is to give all that you have each and every day and they’ve been doing that. Again, I love them, I’m proud of them, and we have to correct the mistakes tonight, and move on and come driven to be a better football team on Monday.”
The good news? The Vols have a gimme game against Western Carolina to rebound with and a trip to Florida the following week where they can erase many of the bad feelings from Saturday. But it was another reminder that the Vols aren’t all the way back yet. There was plenty of good, some noticeable progress and another close call, but it’s another loss in a big game the Vols thought they had won and a sight that Vol fans have become all too familiar with in recent years.
Final stats from tonight: pic.twitter.com/OwCBiPBTbc
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) September 13, 2015