Five observations: No. 5 Texas A&M 34, Tennessee 13

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    Tennessee lost to No. 5 Texas A&M 34-13 on Saturday afternoon inside of Neyland Stadium to finish the regular season 3-7. The loss marked seven losses in the last eight games for the Vols after beginning the season 2-0. They lost five home games by an average of 22.0 points per game.

    The Vols struck first on a 33-yard passing touchdown from Harrison Bailey to Jacob Warren. It sparked hope that Tennessee could potentially hang around, but A&M proceeded to score on all four of its offensive possessions in the first half. A 46-yard touchdown pass from J.T. Shrout to Cedric Tillman made it a four-point game with 4:08 remaining in the second quarter, but the Aggies responded with a four-yard rushing touchdown to take a 24-13 lead into halftime.

    Texas A&M pitched a shutout in the second half defensively to close out the game. The Vols didn’t score over the final 30 minutes while the Aggies scored twice to close out the 21-point win. For the game, A&M scored on six of their nine possessions. The Aggies were in the victory formation on one of the three drives it did not score.

    These were the five biggest observations from Tennessee’s final game of the regular season:

    Too much Kellen Mond

    Texas A&M star quarterback Kellen Mond proved to be too much for the Tennessee defense to handle. Aside from one bad interception that Vols corner Alontae Taylor picked off at the goal line and returned 45-yards, Mond did anything he wanted against UT. Receivers were wide open, Mond was accurate, he had all day to throw the football, he made plays with his legs and he was extremely efficient on third down.

    “(Mond) was unbelievably efficient throwing,” A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher told reporters following the game. “Picked up a lot of big first downs with his legs on scrambles.. Interception was a bad decision but I put him in a tough situation,. I shouldn’t have put him in that situation.. but just outstanding leadership in the way he’s responded back and this guy is a winner. He’s a class guy and a heck of a football player.”

    Mond was 26-of-32 on the afternoon, throwing for a touchdown and 281 yards. On the ground, Mond rushed for a 5-yard touchdown in the midst of rushing for 59 yards on 12 carries.

    He was at his best on third down against the Vols. As a team, A&M was 10-for-14 on third downs. Mond was nearly perfect on the money down, completing 8-of-10 passes for 107 yards. He picked up eight first downs with his arm.

    Texas A&M entered the day with just two wide receivers with more than six catches on the season. One of those receivers, Hezekiah Jones, led the Aggies with seven catches for 66 yards. Tight end Jalen Wydermyer had a big game as well, catching five passes for 71 yards.

    Second half struggles

    Tennessee’s offense struggled mightily in the second half. Despite the Vols’ defense holding A&M scoreless in the third quarter, the offense tallied just 21 yards in the frame as they averaged negative 0.7 yards per rush and was 2-of-6 passing for 23 yards.

    UT totaled just 57 yards the entire second half. It was 1-of-5 on third down, leading to seven rushing yards on seven attempts and 50 passing yards on 5-of-10 passing to go along with an interception. The Vols fumbled twice as well.

    “Just got to kind of tip your hat to Texas A&M,” Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt told reporters after the game. “They got a good football team. They were able to run the football, they were able to convert first downs. They kept us from making explosive plays. Eliminated our run game. Eliminated the time of possession, which eliminated a lot of the opportunities for our guys. It just kind of squeezed us out. Couldn’t get off the field on third down and couldn’t create enough momentum offensively. Had negative plays on the three sacks, that hurt us.

    “You just have to give them credit. They have a good football team.”

    No Eric Gray, big problems

    In a shocking development prior to the game, the Vols announced that sophomore running back Eric Gray would not be available to play. Most Vol fans didn’t immediately read too much into the development simply because it’s 2020 and this year, those developments tend to be COVID related.

    But it wasn’t COVID related. As the the Vols and Aggies kicked off, word trickled out in a report that Tennessee’s football program was under NCAA investigation. The alleged violations involve current Tennessee players along with recruits. There are multiple assistant coaches, staffers and players who have been questioned as part of the investigation. One report specifically named inside linebackers coach Brian Niedermeyer.

    Gray was not specifically named like Niedermeyer, but Pruitt failed to give much of an answer when asked why Gray did not play.

    “He was unavailable,” Pruitt responded when asked. “You know, the entire year, when it’s come to our guys with injury to COVID or for whatever reasons, we’ve always said they’re unavailable.”

    “Guys, I’ve already addressed that one time,” Pruitt adamantly responded when asked a third time about Gray, this time in the form of if Gray or any other players were unavailable due to compliance issues.

    Senior Ty Chandler was responsible for filling Gray’s shoes against A&M. He rushed for 31 yards on seven carries as Tennessee struggled to run the football. The Vols rushed for 24 yards as a team, averaging 1.4 yards per carry.

    Quarterback Musical Chairs

    Bailey made his third career start against the Aggies and it didn’t go as smoothly as the first two against Florida and Vanderbilt. The true freshman was a perfect 6-of-6 for 85 yards and a touchdown, but he was sacked three times and fumbled twice as he held on to the football time too long on multiple occasions.

    Shrout also played a good bit as Pruitt once again rotated quarterbacks. The redshirt sophomore was 6-of-14 for 104 yards and a touchdown. He threw one interception, but it was on a Hail Mary type of throw towards the end of the game when the result was already decided.

    “Harrison does a lot of really good things,” Pruitt said. “One thing that he’s got to get past, he gets stuck a little bit. Sometimes in the throw game, just whether it’s a progression read, it’s a coverage read, whatever it is. There are a a few times, I think everybody sees it, he holds the ball a little bit. Just one of those things that he got past. And the more reps he can get the better he’ll be. Whether it’s throwing the ball away, whether it’s taking a check down. Just one of those things. I thought J.T., probably the same thing.”

    The two combined to complete 12 of their 20 passing attempts for 189 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Tennessee’s offense as a whole generated just 213 total yards of offense.

    Spiller out of the backfield

    Aggies running back Isaiah Spiller had a big day on the ground. He rushed for 89 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries, but he also consistently killed Tennessee out of the backfield as a pass catcher. Spiller was A&M’s second-leading receiver with six catches for 60 yards.

    Many of Spiller’s catches were on third down when Tennessee lost track of him coming of the backfield and he converted for a first down.

    “There were a couple times that our linebacker had the back out of the backfield,” Pruitt said when asked about the struggles to contain Spiller. “In our defense, we have mechanisms that can get you out of issues, so to speak. So if we’re bringing a pressure and a linebacker has got a back and the back is really chowed out or fixing to get out, we have butch calls, we have spear calls to execute it, right? Now, that sounds good sitting up here. But it’s something that, the more experience you get, you’re able to apply these things. We didn’t do that a couple times.

    “One time the back was in there, then he came up late. We got a safety that has got the back. He thinks the back is blocking, he didn’t close to him. He’s going to cut on another wide receiver because he thinks the back is in protection, and the back gets out on third down and they give him the ball and outrun us. So a couple things like that. These guys have always been a team that gets the back out really fast, especially into the boundary. We had some ways to peel them, and when we did it the right way, we were fine.”

    Ben McKee is a graduate from the University of Tennessee and has a degree in Journalism and Electronic Media. He covers Tennessee football, basketball, baseball, and the Lady Vols for RTI, and he's also the host of the RTI Podcast. You can also hear Ben on the morning sports radio show "The Swain Event." He's the producer and co-host along with former Vol wide receiver Jayson Swain.