Butch Jones discussed the concepts of “home focus” and “noon focus” all week as the Vols prepared to face 41-point underdog North Texas, one of the worst teams in college football, on Saturday afternoon in Neyland Stadium.
That noon focus may have been there for one drive as the Vols jumped out to a 7-0 lead in the opening two minutes on a 28-yard touchdown run by Alvin Kamara. It didn’t appear to be present for much of the rest of the afternoon, particularly on offense, as the Vols struggled their way to an uninspiring 24-0 win over the Mean Green (1-9).
Tennessee pieced together a couple other touchdown drives on the afternoon and got a 34-yard field goal from Aaron Medley, never truly leaving the game in serious doubt against a North Texas team that lost to FCS-level Portland State 66-7 earlier this year and fired head coach Dan McCarney shortly after that game.
But this performance by UT matched the rapidly-deteriorating field condition: it was sloppy.
It did, however, get the job done though when looking at it from a bowl-eligibility perspective. Tennessee (6-4, 3-3 SEC) reached the six-win plateau to reach bowl eligibility for the second straight season for the first time since 2009-10. Jones became the first UT coach to reach that milestone since Phillip Fulmer did it in 2006-07.
“There isn’t a ‘U’ behind the ‘W’ that stands for `Ugly Win,'” Jones said after the game.”They’re all wins, but we have to go back and we have to get better. We’re going to be challenged the next couple weeks, but I thought our kids were gritty and grinded it out, and we got bowl eligible. We have a long ways to go, but we’re proud of them.”
As Jones said, the Vols do need to get better with a pair of stingy defensive squads in Missouri and Vanderbilt left on the schedule. Tennessee will likely be favored in both games, but will be no shoe-in if its show many of the flaws it did on Saturday against a completely overmatched North Texas team that has given up at least 30 points per game in every contest this season with the exception of this game and the UT-San Antonio matchup on Oct. 31.
The passing game, in particular, was sloppy. Against the No. 118 defense in the nation in passing defense, the Vols managed just 172 yards on 18-of-28 passing. Joshua Dobbs never looked completely comfortable in the pocket, threw several inaccurate balls down the field and tossed a pick just before halftime that kept the Vols off the board. With the Vols looking to keep him fresh and healthy for the final two conference games, the QB run game wasn’t a big part of the plan – limiting a lot of what UT likes to do offensively.
“It takes an element out of your offense, make no mistake about it,” Jones said of Dobbs, who has a minor foot injury, being limited. “We have to able to execute in the other phases. I’ll go back, I’ll watch the video tonight. I’ll try to pinpoint it. I thought we had a good week of preparation.I could sit here and tell you [it was] the first noon game, all that, but I’m not making excuses. It is what it is. Both teams had to play at this time.”
The Vols did get a spark from running back Alvin Kamara, who led the way with 15 carries for 127 yards and a pair of scores, collecting the second 100-yard rushing game of his career (Bowling Green).
“He had big plays all throughout the entire game,” Dobbs said of Kamara. “Second play of the game, he had that 20-yard reception and then tacked in a touchdown after that. He kept growing from there. It was great to have that production. That’s what we expect out of Alvin. We know the type of player he is and the playmaker he is when he gets the ball in his hands. It’s great to have that weapon.”
Defensively, the Vols were glad to pitch the shutout and hold North Texas under 200 yards of total offense. The Mean Green found some success inside its own territory, but was never able to cross the Vols’ 40-yard line. There was certainly more bend at a few times than coordinator John Jancek would’ve liked to see, but it never came close to breaking.
Tennessee will take the bowl eligibility, its first three-game winning streak since 2010 and a victory to keep hopes of a 5-0 finish down the stretch alive. But the Vols didn’t fool too many people by just getting the W on Saturday. There’s plenty to improve, and a misstep over the final two weeks is certainly possible if the Vols don’t do it.
“We have to play better, but again, we won the football game,” Jones added. “I don’t ever want to diminish that. Winning is fragile, as we know.”