After a pair of poor first quarters in the opening weeks, Tennessee’s focus against Ohio was starting fast.
The Vols did just that – jetting down the field in just three plays to dent the scoreboard first on a 20-yard strike from Joshua Dobbs to Josh Malone.
While the “start fast” part went better, the “finish strong” part wasn’t quite what the Vols (3-0) were looking for. UT, amidst injuries piling up on the defensive side of the ball, struggled the rest of the way to a lethargic 28-19 victory over Ohio (1-2).
The end result – UT’s first 3-0 start since the 2004 season – is what the Vols hoped for.
The overall performance was not, as a gauntlet of four consecutive SEC games against contending teams awaits a UT team that has been wildly inconsistent through three games. There will be plenty to clean up after this one.
“Our goal was to be 3-0 at this point, and we are 3-0, but I think everyone will tell you that we have to get a lot better as we start conference-play next week,” Butch Jones said after the game.
Tennessee put the ball on the ground five times and committed nine penalties as well.
“It is uncharacteristic,” Jones added. “It’s something that these individuals haven’t done before. It’s a point of emphasis, and we have to improve on it and get better at it. It will be a point of emphasis every time we carry the ball. We will practice it. Thank goodness we haven’t turned the ball over much and that we have done a good job of recovering loose footballs, but I don’t know what else to tell you besides they are inexcusable plays and we will get better at it.”
Tennessee also will press forward with a plethora of injuries and personnel issues to address as well. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cam Sutton were among the key pieces that went down on Saturday and didn’t return. Jones later indicated that Sutton could be out for an extended period of time, while Reeves-Maybin could be back next week against Florida.
They joined linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., defensive end LaTroy Lewis and cornerback Justin Martin on the sideline with injuries. Cornerback Malik Foreman also sat the game out due to suspension.
As the player continued to fall, the Vols played bend-but-don’t-break defense in the first half, forcing Ohio kicker Louie Zervos to hit four field goals. Tennessee also pieced together a 10-play, 68-yard drive that concluded with a short Jalen Hurd touchdown run early in the second quarter. That, combined with Malone’s early touchdown, helped the Vols take a slim 14-12 edge to the break.
After a combined five scoreless series by the teams to start the second half, UT finally busted through with a 13-yard touchdown run by Dobbs to push the lead to 21-12 with 4:57 remaining in the third. Ohio wouldn’t go away, however. The Bobcats answered with an 8-play, 75-yard drive of their own to pull back to 21-19 late in the third.
Dobbs, who finished the game with 203 yards passing, 59 yards rushing and a combined three scores, added a second 20-yard scoring strike to Malone at the 11:07 mark of the fourth quarter to push margin to the eventual final score of 28-19.
“I’m really proud of him,” Jones said of Malone, who finished the game with five catches for 69 yards. “He’s really stepped up and made some big-time catches for us in some big-time situations. He had a couple touchdowns today. Again, he’s another individual who has grown in our program and he works exceptionally hard every day. Josh Malone has had a high level of consistency week-in and week-out, day-in and day-out in practice and it shows on gameday.”
Now the Vols will go forward looking for more of that consistency across the board as the Gators get set to come to Neyland Stadium next Saturday (3:30 pm ET, CBS).
“We had a better start than the last two games today, it is just a matter of keeping that same intensity consistent throughout the entire game – staying focused, taking it one play at a time and just focusing on the now instead of what happened before or what’s coming up next,” said guard Jashon Robertson.