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Tennessee Offense Comes Up Short Against The Rebels

Photo via Tennessee Athletics

After over four hours of plays, countless delays for faked injuries, an injury to Tennessee’s starting quarterback Hendon Hooker and a delay as fans—particularly students— heaved anything and everything onto the playing surface at Neyland Stadium, Tennessee had one more great chance to pull off a chaotic and memorable upset of No. 13 Ole Miss.

With 11 seconds left, Joe Milton and Tennessee were 21 yards from an improbable win. Milton’s second down pass barely sailed over the hands of Cedric Tillman in the end zone. On one game’s final play, Milton scrambled for 13 yards before meekly going out of bounds at the eight-yard line.

A night of craziness ended with the least climatic ending. A poor decision by Milton kept Tennessee from even having one final shot at the win. 

“I mean, yeah, I think everyone here would say the same thing,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said of Milton’s decision to run. “You want to put the ball in the endzone.”

While the final play was an anticlimactic ending, it was a fitting way for the game to end. In a game with an over/under in the 80s, Tennessee’s offense let the Vols down. Tennessee had the ball three times in the second half with a chance to take the lead. All three possessions ended with zero points as the Vols would lead for just 3:07 Saturday.

Tennessee’s defense did everything imaginable to give the Vols a chance to win Saturday night. Playing one of the best offenses in the country, Tim Banks’ unit held the Rebels to 31 points. 

One Ole Miss touchdown was an 11-yard drive following Velus Jones Jr’s muffed punt in the first quarter. The Vols defense forced a safety— the program’s first since 2015— and appeared to have a scoop-and-score before a befuddling forward progress call revoked a Tennessee touchdown.

Safety Trevon Flowers became the first player to intercept Matt Corral all season, giving Tennessee the ball down five points with 4:08 remaining. Even after Tennessee turned it over on downs and fans spent nearly 20 minutes throwing items on the field, the Vols’ defense just went back to work, forcing a three-and-out and giving the Vols’ offense one more chance.

The only flaw from Tennessee’s defense all night was its inability to stop quarterback runs, especially designed quarterback runs on third down.

“There were a lot of things that we did really well,” Heupel said. “We had some breakdowns at times. I thought we made it tough on him for most of the night. Some quarterback draws that we have to get better against. We had them in some third and longs early in the game. We have to get off the football field.”

Still, Tennessee’s defense played a great game and gave tremendous effort in a game that Ole Miss ran 101 plays.

It was Tennessee’s offense that let them down Saturday night. 

Tennessee’s offensive issues started up front where injuries to Cooper and Cade Mays led to a bad night for the offensive line. Hooker was sacked six times and Tennessee’s run game failed to get going the way it had the last two weeks.

Not only did Tennessee’s run game fail to get going like it did the last two weeks, it was pedestrian at best. The Vols ran for 222 yards but it came on 50 carries.

Then there was the oddity of Tennessee’s play calling. The Vols threw just 29 passes compared to 50 runs. Of course Hooker ran the ball on called pass plays, but the Vols commitment to the run was evident and led them astray to a degree.

What was most befuddling was Heupel and Tennessee’s commitment to the second-and-long run. The Vols ran the ball nine times on second and eight or longer. Those plays averaged 2.33 yards and five of them went for one or less yards. Only one play went for more than four yards.

“Not major overall structure difference,” Heupel said if Ole Miss’ defense did anything they weren’t expecting. “There is some things that they did that we did not handle protection. We got behind chains a couple of times. One drive, false start, not enough guys on the field, just simple things that you just can’t do when you are playing a good football team.”

If you told Heupel before the game that Ole Miss would score 31 points and Tennessee’s offense didn’t turn the ball over, he’d have taken it.

The Vols’ defense gave their offense every chance to earn a memorable come from behind win Saturday night, but Tennessee’s offense just couldn’t muster enough to get the job done.

Now the gaze turns to Hendon Hooker and the injury he suffered on the final drive of the game. Heupel didn’t have an update on Hooker’s status after the game but the quarterback was down for a long time and it didn’t look good when he limped off the field.

Time will tell, but with the Vols one game into a brutal four game stretch, Tennessee may have to survive without the quarterback that galvanized the Vols’ offense over the last month.

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