It’s never easy being on the losing side of a thriller in college football. Whether it’s a missed field goal as time expires or a late turnover, it’s tough to mentally get over a crushing loss.
Going through that even once in a season is hard to swallow, but after falling 28-27 to Florida this past Saturday, Tennessee has let two potentially program-changing wins slip right through its fingertips.
When results like this occur, fans start to feel frustrated. Programs can bide their time by saying things like, “It’s a process” or “We’re a growing team with a lot of great talent.” But, sooner or later, those excuses stop working. And for Tennessee coach Butch Jones, that time is now.
A loss to Florida puts Tennessee’s program behind the Gators again for the time being. The blown lead also puts Jones in a tough spot: He has to explain his Vols giving up two, two-touchdown leads in the fourth quarter this month. But was this one really his fault?
Were the previous complaints about suspect play calling and under-utilization of talent valid in this loss like they were in previous losses, or was Florida’s defense what fans should be talking about? Did Tennessee lose that game, or did Florida go out and win it?
Let’s take a look by breaking down how the Vols offense fared against the best defense they’d faced to date.
Butch’s Bag of Tricks
Tennessee’s first two drives were pretty vanilla. No play gained more than six yards, and the Vols had a run/pass ratio of 2:1. Both of those drives resulted in punts. But after they found themselves down an early score, Jones had to do something to throw Florida off its game.
Ah, the double pass. This week we really saw Jones and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord do what they had to do to get their best runner some space. This play was a great call, but not because quarterback Josh Dobbs made a good run; little things made it successful.
Notice how there are only two Florida players to block once Dobbs gets the ball. This is a result of great play design. Running back Jalen Hurd is getting ready to block, the tight end is running across the field to take his man (Vernon Hargreaves III) out of the play and the offensive linemen are selling the fake. It all works into the result of the play. I wish I had a better visual, but the play call even fooled the cameraman.
Every play has many moving parts. Tennessee made this work by getting all of them to move together.
Every time a team calls a jump pass against Florida, I laugh; because the commentators invariably go crazy with some variation on “THEY JUST GAVE FLORIDA A TASTE OF THEIR OWN MEDICINE” as if Tim Tebow hasn’t been gone for six years. But this was something to marvel over: It took a ton of guts to call this in a tie ball game and with not much going offensively, even if it was really the same design Jones famously used at Cincinnati.
Without those two trick plays, this game might have gotten away from Tennessee: Both were critical plays during first-half touchdown drives.
What’s frustrating about Jones, though, isn’t that he’s afraid to take chances. It’s that he takes chances on home-run swings or not at all.
With one Florida starting defensive back Jalen Tabor out because of a suspension and Hargreaves dealing with a back issue, DeBord and Jones had an ideal chance to set up running back Alvin Kamara in the slot, get receiver Von Pearson in open space and find a way to get receiver Marquez North off Hargreaves and into a favorable matchup. But they didn’t do any of that, and seemed almost afraid to let Dobbs pass.
Tennessee ended the game with 83 passing yards from Dobbs, and 33 of those yards going to one player out of the backfield. Pearson and North ended the game with zero catches and very few targets. Most of Dobbs’ passes were either wide-receiver screens, passes to running backs out of the backfield or a quick slant right after the ball was snapped. Tennessee rarely took chances down the field, and that helped Florida stop its offense in the second half.
Poor Pass Protection
Part of the reason Tennessee wasn’t able to get anything going in the passing department was because its offensive line has really struggled to protect Dobbs.
Here’s some of the carnage.
The average time between snap and throw for Tennessee was less than three seconds. That indicates the coach does not trust his linemen to form the pocket. After watching this tape, I don’t blame him. The Vols’ front five are maulers, but they are not quick enough to compete with the SEC’s top pass rushers. Speed rushers like Alex McCalister will haunt them all year.
Dreadful Down The Stretch
In college football, the way to protect a lead is to grow that lead. By the fourth quarter, an opposing team’s defense has seen just about everything an offense has to offer. When it comes to crunch time, teams are supposed to get more creative, not less.
The play above shows a third down look which spreads the defense thin on the outside, leaving room to get playmakers in space.
But both running backs went out to the flats, and I rolled my eyes. Why? Because Tennessee had called that exact play with that exact motion in the first half. It worked then, but Florida’s defensive players immediately started communicating with each other after the motion on this play, knowing it was a delayed quarterback draw and the running backs were just a distraction.
Florida didn’t fall for it.
These were crucial third downs and DeBord was using repeat plays. Some of them worked, but offensive coordinators — and their players — need to believe they’re smarter than their opponent. Tennessee didn’t give that vibe down the stretch.
What Went Wrong
So what happened? How does a team that controlled the clock for more than half the game and rushed for more than 250 yards lose? How does a team that won the turnover battle and was ahead in both yards per pass and yards per rush fall short?
My verdict is this: When it comes to crunch time, Tennessee’s play-callers haven’t shown the offensive creativity needed to win. And while I believe that’s because of poor pass protection, the reasoning behind the lack of creativity doesn’t excuse the lack of creativity.
The Vols called a great game defensively by playing aggressively and making sure quarterback Will Grier and the Florida offensive line were pressured all game. Take away a huge Kelvin Taylor run, and a last-minute touchdown, and Tennessee had the defensive game plan to win.
On offense, take away two trick plays — and a lot of missed tackles by Florida — and Tennessee was not diverse enough in its game plan to win the game. When the clock started winding down, the playbook dwindled. And the Vols didn’t play with enough urgency in the passing game until it was too late.
There’s a lot of talent on that Tennessee roster, and Butch Jones is one heck of a recruiter. But as of right now, Tennessee is not “back.” That truth is backed up by the lack of development along the offensive line. Tennessee can only go as far as the big boys up front can lead them, and right now, that isn’t very far.