The road to get there was slightly different, but the destination remained the same. After blowing two-score leads in the fourth quarter in games to Oklahoma and Florida previously this season, Tennessee jumped out to a 14-0 lead against Arkansas (2-3, 1-1 SEC) on Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.
This time, the lead was gone by halftime. The meltdown might not have been as late and as painful as the previous two, but the end result proved to be the same.
Arkansas, a team that started the season 1-3 and came into this game still looking to establish an identity after a frustrating start to the season, then did what the Razorbacks are built to do. They ran the ball, controlled the clock and slowly salted away a 24-20 victory, giving UT (2-3, 0-2 SEC) loss number three on the season by a final margin of 24-20.
“We all hurt,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said after the game. “It’s tough on all of us. When you invest so much – and you know there is no magical potion, there is no magical cure – you go back to work. You keep working to get better. I love these kids and our character’s being tested. Our competitive character is being tested. Our fortitude’s being tested. All you can do is keep working and work your way through it. I don’t know. The opportunities are there. We just have to go make them. They’ve made them before and we are going to have many more opportunities in moving forward.”
Tennessee, just as it has in other big games this season, came out swinging. Evan Berry ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown, becoming the first UT player since Willie Gault in 1980 to run the opening kickoff back. After getting a stop, the Vols showed glimpses of why they were the favorites against an Arkansas team that had some questions on the defensive side of the ball.
The Vols marched 89 yards in 11 plays on their first offensive drive to take the early 14-0 lead. With the seemingly endless rain storm clearing up and the Vols in total control early, it looked like it might be a night to remember in Neyland.
Instead it turned into yet another evening to forget for the 101,265 who braved the weather and made it out to Neyland.
The Razorbacks outscored Tennessee 24-6 from that point forward. It wasn’t due to a lack of opportunities for Tennessee, however. It was a frustrating evening for freshman wide receiver Preston Williams, who fumbled inside the 10 to end one second-quarter drive and dropped another pass in the second half that would’ve given the Vols a key first down and a big gain. Aaron Medley also clanged a 28-yard field goal attempt off the upright in the first quarter. The Williams fumble and the Medley miss likely accounted for 6-10 points off the board for UT.
Throw in a block in the back on a would-be Alvin Kamara touchdown on a punt return in the second half, and the errors and the frustrations continue to grow as the Vols continue to search for ways to close out these types of games.
“We can’t take seven points off the board on a punt return,” Jones said. “We need those seven points. We are one or two individuals away on another kickoff return. We have to play complimentary football and again, the field position game. We weren’t able to get off the field in the second half.”
“Obviously it was a four-point game at the end,” added quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who finished 20-of-36 for 232 yards passing, but had just seven yards on seven carries, when asked about coming up short in the red zone in particular. “We talked about scoring touchdowns in the red zone, we only did that one time. That’s something we knew coming into the game and we didn’t execute when he had the opportunities in front of us.”
Arkansas made sure those opportunities were few and far between in the second half.
The Razorbacks limited Tennessee to just four second-half possessions with only a single field goal to show for them. The Vols mustered just 90 yards of total offense in the second half. Running back Jalen Hurd, who had 89 yards in the first half, had just four carries for a net of one yard in the second half.
And while Arkansas, which had one second-half field goal attempt blocked and a second field goal fake attempt snuffed out, certainly didn’t play a perfect second half, it was the Hogs that had the clear upper hand in the third and fourth quarters, piling up 236 total yards of offense to UT’s 90. Arkansas also held a commanding 141 to 4 edge in second-half rushing yardage, while holding the ball for nearly 22 of the final 30 minutes of the game.
“Well, I think some of it is a byproduct of we had the ball for a total of eight minutes in the second half,” Jones said of why the Vols were so badly out-rushed in the second half. “We only had four possessions. We started at the minus-24, the minus-6, the minus-7, and minus-14. We knew it was going to be a line of scrimmage game. It showed that.”
For Tennessee, it was another crushing loss that the leaves the Vols in a very precarious spot with games against Georgia and Alabama next on the schedule. Arkansas, meanwhile, got its SEC first road win under Bret Bielema and its first win in a one-possession game under Bielema as well, getting a couple monkeys off their back while also getting an important win for a team that still has a tough SEC West slate in front of it.
“At some point in your life as a man you just kind of got to finally take what the world wants to give you and you can’t keep giving it away,” Bielema said. “Our guys really played well today. There wasn’t going to be anything but full throttle for four quarters.”
Injury update: Tennessee was without receivers Pig Howard and Marquez North. Jones said Howard was ruled out during the week, while North tried to get loose earlier on Saturday, but wasn’t able to give it a go.
Defensive end Kyle Phillips (hand/arm) and offensive lineman Dylan Wiesman (foot/ankle) both left the game and didn’t return. Jones had no update on the prognosis for either player. Left guard Jashon Robertson moved to right guard and Mack Crowder entered at left guard to make up for Wiesman’s second-half absence.
Final Stats: pic.twitter.com/rIfjb0lWdj
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) October 4, 2015