Saturday night went largely according to script for Tennessee, which came into the game as massive favorites against an overmatched Western Carolina squad. The Vols were a bit sluggish in the first quarter at times, but exploded in the second quarter for 31 points, building a 41-3 halftime lead that more than secured the easy 55-10 victory for a Tennessee team looking to move on from a heartbreaking loss to Oklahoma last week.
Here are five observations from the Vols’ win:
1. Passing game progression: No, Western Carolina didn’t have the athletes that Oklahoma did or that Florida will next week in the secondary. But Tennessee made some progress in the passing game after struggling there mightily last week. Joshua Dobbs started the game 11-of-12, and while many of those completions were quick-hitters out to playmakers on the perimeter, it was still a good sign to see him getting the ball out of his hand quickly and getting players like Marquez North and Josh Malone involved in the offense. Dobbs found freshman Preston Williams, who had a favorable man-to-man matchup, for a 25-yard score on the first drive as well.
“We wanted to get him going,” Jones said of Dobbs. “I thought Josh did a good job of managing the game – making good decisions.”
But overall, the vertical passing game still has some work to do as Dobbs struggled to consistently connect on the deep ball with his receivers. Quinten Dormady, however, had some success in the passing game in relief of Dobbs. Dormady connected with Williams a couple times, including a nice throw on the run where he found the talented freshman receiver for a 24-yard touchdown. All-in-all, there was some progress in passing game, but the Vols head to The Swamp with some questions in that area.
2. Historic day in the return game: Lightning struck twice in the return game for the first time in a long time. Tennessee had a kickoff return and a punt return for a touchdown for the first time since at least 1957, though it’s been so long Tennessee is having to go further back in its archives to confirm that stat.
With older brother Eric Berry on the sidelines watching, sophomore Evan Berry returned a kickoff 88 yards late in the first half, breaking at least seven tackles in the process on the way to one of the plays of the year. Stepping in for Cam Sutton after he got a few opportunities, running back Alvin Kamara took over at punt returner and took a 50-yarder back for a touchdown. Kamara had another 50+ yard return then negated on his next opportunity due to a block in the back by Austin Smith. Regardless, the Vols showed their depth and explosiveness in the return game.
3. Youth gets experience: Butch Jones has touted how many freshmen have played for the Vols this year, but a majority of that experience has been on special teams or more limited snaps. The blowout nature of Saturday night’s game gave Tennessee the chance to give extended playing time to many young players. Among the top performers statistically were Dormady (6-of-8, 93 yards, TD), Williams (3 catches, 98 yards, 2 TDs), safety Stephen Griffin (3 tackles, TFL) and running back John Kelly (13 carries for 59 yards).
A ton of young linemen on both sides of the ball such as Kahlil McKenzie, Shy Tuttle, Kyle Phillips, Jack Jones, Chance Hall and others also saw extended reps. Jones regularly talks about the development that goes on with young players throughout the course of a season, and this was a great opportunity for some of those young players to see a high volume of reps before entering SEC play. “We got a lot of individuals quality reps and were able to put their football identity on film,” Butch Jones said after the game.
4. Explosive second quarter takes care of business: Let’s face it, this game was never in any real degree of doubt from the time it was initially scheduled. But Tennessee was a touch slow out of the gate – settling for a field goal early and getting stopped by WCU a couple times in the opening 20 minutes or so of the game. The Vols exploded later in the second quarter, however, scoring 31 total points. The Vols had 24 of those points in the final 5:12 of the second quarter – giving them a commanding lead that left zero doubt that it would be a rout.
You don’t get a ton of style points for any kind of win over Western Carolina, but this is a team that had Alabama within 21-14 last year in the second quarter and certainly could’ve caused UT fans more anxiety and frustration if the Catamounts had kept the game competitive in any way.
5. Vols stay healthy: Other than getting the win in the game, perhaps the biggest victory is Tennessee appearing to get out of the game without any major injury concerns. Starting guard Jashon Robertson was taken out fairly early, but that seemed to be fairly precautionary after he missed some time last week as well with a bad ankle. That does not appear to be a major concern at this point, and at least from what we could see, it doesn’t look like anybody else left the game with any kind of serious injury. That’s great news for a team that’s been banged up and enters SEC play next week, in addition to the Vols getting some rest for players such as Cam Sutton.
“Basically they played two games last week. Some of them had over 100 reps last season. So having them on the sideline was obviously very beneficial,” Jones said.