The message from Tennessee players post game was simple. There are no moral victories, there are no excuses and they have to execute better.
“There’s no more moral victories,” Cedric Tillman said.
“We need to finish,” Matthew Butler said of the Vols’ fourth quarter issues.
The Vols were right there with No. 4 Alabama, trailing by just one score early in the fourth quarter before the Crimson Tide began a scoring barrage that ended with Alabama winning 52-24 and smoking cigars for the 15th straight year.
Saturday night’s battle in Tuscaloosa went similarly to Tennessee’s loss at Florida last month. The Vols started fast with a pair of long touchdowns— though it was one long touchdown and another long completion to set up a score Saturday.
No one could question Tennessee’s fight or heart in either game before things got away from them in the second half. It took Alabama half a quarter longer to pull away than it did Florida, but the end result was the same.
That’s the third game Tennessee has been in the thick of at the start of the fourth quarter. The Vols are 0-3 in those games.
Maybe that’s why frustration is piling up for Tennessee’s players. Senior defensive tackle Matthew Butler was frustrated, bordering on angry in his postgame press conference. All three of the Vols’ players made available to the media were more upset than after most losses.
It’s easy to see why Tennessee players are frustrated. The Pitt and Ole Miss games were incredibly winnable deep into the fourth quarter and just a few plays, and a few inches, in both games were the difference.
“We obviously fought hard,” Butler said. “A few of the details slipped through the cracks and even though we fought hard— I think to the end— we were not privy to the details in the fourth quarter.”
“We have to go out there and start executing in the fourth quarter,” Tillman said. “We’ve let a few games slip now in the fourth quarter. It’s just the little details that have stopped us from winning a couple more games this year.”
However, there was no shame in what happened to Tennessee in the fourth quarter Saturday night.
The Vols’ defense gave up 28 fourth quarter points though two of the four touchdowns came on drives of 18 and 30 yards.
Then you add the fact that this was the eighth straight game Tennessee has played. The Vols’ defense was on the field 101 plays last week against Ole Miss and 92 plays against Alabama. The Crimson Tide’s offense was on the field for 40:26.
No one can expect a Tennessee defense that was decimated in the transfer portal and was without two starters and a handful of backups Saturday night to hold up under those conditions. It’s not realistic.
“Defensively, it just felt like in the fourth quarter, being on the field that long, they just ran out of gas,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said. “Defensively there were a lot of things I was proud of throughout the course of the game.”
So, how does Tennessee go from hanging with much more talented teams for four quarters instead of two and a half or three?
Tennessee’s players would tell you that it’s as simple as execution, but that’s an oversimplified version.
The Vols need better depth on both sides of the field but particularly defense. Tennessee needs much better play along the offensive line of scrimmage, pulling an upset of that magnitude means you have to have some semblance of a run game. Not to mention being less dependent on big plays.
Tennessee fans should be happy that their team isn’t talking about moral victories. Butch Jones would have hyped up his team’s effort. Jeremy Pruitt would have lambasted his team, saying he’s just waiting to bring in their replacements.
Heupel’s touch was perfect. Proud of the effort, but disappointed with the result.
“That’s what I said in the locker room to this football team,” Heupel said. “(I) don’t question the way they show up and compete every Saturday. Love that about this group. Love going and competing with them. Tonight was a lot of fun for three quarters with these guys. We just have to grow up and be smarter. Our margins are smaller and tighter than you want. … We have to fight to be on the right side of that.”
Tennessee’s team said there are no moral victories. Saying that eight games into a new coaching staff after losing to a program in the midst of the greatest dynasty in college football history is a moral victory of its own.
Now, you’d trade that moral victory for a real one over Pitt, Ole Miss or Kentucky any day of the week. It’s not all rainbows and puppies, but the Vols are progressing the way a team under a first year coach would like to.
The fact that Tennessee wasn’t scared or accepting moral victories against Alabama should bode well for its ability to pull upsets down the road if Heupel is able to boost his program’s talent and depth.