Tennessee Football: 10 Things We Learned from the Volunteers' Win vs. the Zips
For three hours on Saturday, the Tennessee Volunteers looked like one of the most pathetic teams in college football. They were turning the ball over, dropping passes and allowing big play after big play against an Akron team that has gone 1-11 each of the past two seasons.
Then, Eric Gordon did what he has a knack for doing—intercepting a pass in a big moment. With nine minutes left in the game and the Vols up by just seven, Gordon caught a bobbled pass on the Zips' 27-yard line. The very next play was a perfect Tyler Bray-to-Justin Hunter connection for a touchdown.
It was a hard-fought win. In fact, it was too hard-fought. The Volunteers need to have a great week of practice and preparation for a tough test against No. 5 Georgia in Athens next week.
There is a lot to learn from this game. Here are 10 things I noticed.
Time of Possession Is a Serious Issue for Tennessee
Tennessee held the ball for 31 minutes and 24 seconds in the game, a 90-second advantage in time of possession. The Volunteers were actually behind in time of possession the entire game until the last nine minutes.
Most weeks, this phenomenon is due to the fast-scoring offense of Tennessee, but that wasn't the case against the Zips. Only the touchdown catch by Justin Hunter in the fourth quarter was a quick score.
The defensive line gets tired being on the field that long, and from there, it's a vicious cycle—the defense is too tired to stop the drive, so they have to play more.
Long, sustained drives are key to winning in the SEC, and Tennessee hasn't mastered them yet.
Offensive Line Is Simply Not Producing Like It Should
There are moments when you could drive a Mack Truck through the offensive line, but then the very next play, there are no holes to be found. With an offensive line as big and talented as Tennessee's going against an undersized line like Akron's, that's inexcusable.
The Zips threw the house at the running game a few times during the game, and if that happens, it's up to Tyler Bray to take advantage.
But when it's time to move bodies and create holes for a running back working as hard as Rajion Neal, the Volunteer offensive line still left a lot to be desired on numerous short yardage situations.
Rajion Neal Is the Most Improved Volunteer
Rajion Neal was the third-best running back on the team against NC State. Marlin Lane and Cordarrelle Patterson both had much better games carrying the ball.
But Neal has increased his yardage in each game since, literally carrying the Volunteers Saturday night for the first half. Neal averaged nearly seven yards per carry on 22 rushes, good for 151 yards. He also caught three passes for 22 yards and a touchdown.
I appreciated the fight that Neal showed when no one else was motivated. The team should look to him when the going gets rough.
The Kicking Game May Have Turned a Corner
I kept waiting for a missed extra point, but lo and behold, it never came! Could it be that the Tennessee kickers have turned a corner and put that nonsense behind them?
Derrick Brodus actually had a very nice game. He hit all four of his field goals from 37, 23, 22 and 28 yards, and it can't go unnoticed that for the first time all season, the Vols didn't miss an extra point.
Matt Darr only had one punt, but it was a nice boot for 45 yards inside the 20-yard line. Michael Palardy was decent on kick-offs, though he did land one out-of-bounds, which led to an Akron field goal.
Offense Is Too Dependent on Perfect Rhythm
Throughout the first half, short passes and quick runs kept the Vols in rhythm and the ball moving. But any incompletion, stuffed run or even injury timeout got them out of their flow, and they were paralyzed the rest of the series.
With the talent that Tennessee fields, there is no reason for that. There were too many dropped passes by Justin Hunter and Zach Rogers to count on everything clicking just right. I can promise you that Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina won't let the offense get into a good flow, either.
Sometimes, you just have to make a play on offense. Not everything can be perfectly in rhythm.
The Vols Are Susceptible to the Big Play
After just four games, Tennessee has given up three touchdowns of over 70 yards. What's worse is the terrible reaction to such adversity: The Vols immediately hang their heads.
That has to stop. They fought through it against Akron, but a more talented team would pour it on, just like Florida did. Of course, the best way to make sure you don't react badly to big plays is to not give up big plays.
If these huge runs and passes are due to growing pains with the 3-4 defense, then it should be getting better each week.
Byron Moore Is a Bright Spot on the Defense
Byron Moore helped calm Tennessee down after a shocking start with an easy interception. He then stopped what looked to be an Akron touchdown drive with a goal line interception.
In his first full year as a starter, Moore has impressed me to no end. On a defense that hasn't gotten consistent pressure on the quarterback, given up far too many big plays and had major issues with communication, Moore stands out as a bright spot.
I hope Brian Randolph comes back healthy next year because that was a safety duo that was becoming one of the best in the country.
Jim Chaney's Obsession with the Wildcat Formation Is Scary
The Volunteers have used the wildcat a lot this season. If Tennessee had any history of success using it, I'd be all for it, but as I recall, the failure to deliver a clean snap from center to running back was a huge reason the Vols lost to Kentucky last year.
And that was just one game.
True freshman Justin King is the apparent "chief wildcat" this year. Starting middle linebacker A.J. Johnson is also now the Vols' goal-line back. Terrific!
I hope offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is just toying with the idea against lesser opponents because I'm afraid it will get completely swallowed up by conference foes.
Tennessee Is Screwed in the SEC
Be careful of feeling too confident after this win. Ultimately, all you need is the W, but if Tennessee comes out sluggish like they've done against Georgia State and Akron against SEC opponents coming up, they won't win a single game.
It's going to be hard enough as it is. No reason to make it worse.
With road games at Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina, and a home game against Alabama coming up, I think it's safe to say that unless the Vols make some serious improvements, they're screwed.
Derek Dooley's Days Are Very, Very Numbered
I watched Derek Dooley like a hawk this game. In the first half, he didn't exude any confidence whatsoever. Neither did his team.
It's not often that the coach gets booed at halftime against a team that has won three games since 2009, but it was indicative of Dooley's limited number of days on the Tennessee sideline. If he pulls out a few major upsets, great.
But tell me, do you see a team that was up 33-26 with nine minutes to go against the Akron Zips winning a bunch games in the SEC?
We're still in a holding pattern with Dooley, but this game wasn't a step in the right direction. Let's see what happens at Georgia.