Tennessee report card: Butch Jones’ first signature win?
Call it signature, monumental, must-win or whatever adjective comes to mind. All seem to fit.
In dramatic fashion, Tennessee came from 21 points down to beat UGA, 38-31, on Saturday. The Vols beat only their second ranked opponent in the Butch Jones era. The last time the Vols came back from a 21-point deficit came in 2005, when the Vols beat LSU. This was one to remember.
However, as special as it was, it wasn’t perfect. Had the Vols been perfect, they would have never trailed 24-3. Here are the grades on a memorable night in Neyland Stadium:
Tennessee’s offense was unstoppable when it didn’t stop itself. The Vols tallied an astonishing 519 total yards. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs completed 25-of-42 passes for 312 yards and three touchdowns. He ran for 118 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. Dobbs did throw an interception and his accuracy waned at times, but it was an overall amazing effort by the junior signal-caller. Running back Jalen Hurd finished with 80 yards on 21 carries, many of which punished Georgia defenders with his tough running style. Hurd’s fumble, however, resulted in a 96-yard touchdown return. The most impressive offensive stat of the night was perhaps 12 completions to UT’s wideouts, which had been M.I.A. for most of the season. Tennessee’s offensive line deserves the game ball. They started the game without a regular starter (Brett Kendrick) and lost two starters during the game (Mack Crowder and Jashon Robertson). Kudos to those that replaced them: freshmen Jack Jones and Chance Hall.
The Vols gave up 444 total yards but only 17 points of offense, considering UGA scored on defense and special teams. The secondary was the weak link against UGA. The Vols are fortunate that mistakes in the defensive backfield didn’t cost them the game. Cornerback Malik Foreman dropped an interception in the first quarter. Cornerback Cameron Sutton was beat for a touchdown pass. Safety Josh McNeil was beat for a deep pass in the second quarter. Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley was beat for a 48-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that tied the game 31-31. Safety Todd Kelly Jr., dropped an interception that could have put the game away. The Vols allowed UGA receiver Reggie Davis to run wide open to the endzone before dropping what would have been a game-tying touchdown pass. Despite the mistakes, the Vols made enough plays. Brian Randolph registered nine tackles and helped break up UGA’s last-gasp effort to tie the game. Defensive end Derek Barnett had seven tackles including a key sack that helped the Vols maintain momentum after they had tied the game 24-24. However, that’s the only play the Vols made behind the line of scrimmage. UT’s linebackers just don’t make enough plays, outside of Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who had five tackles – and that’s nothing to brag about. The Vols gave up 165 yards rushing to a team that lost star tailback Nick Chubb on the first play of the game. Did Tennessee’s defense make enough plays to win the game, or did UGA’s offense make enough mistakes to lose it?
Special Teams: C
There were two special teams plays that seemed to swing the game. First, Davis scored on a 70-yard punt return. There appeared to be an illegal block against Georgia, but the flag was picked up. The other standout special teams play was perhaps as much good fortune as good technique. Trevor Daniel’s 56-yard punt teased the pylon before bouncing out of bounds inside the one. Tiger Woods in his prime couldn’t have placed the ball any better. Daniel has to be the surprise of the season. He wasn’t even expected to be a starter until turning in a strong preseason. He averaged 45 yards per kick and downed three punts inside the 20-yard line against UGA. Kicker Aaron Medley hit his one field goal attempt and downed two of his seven kickoffs in the endzone. Evan Berry turned in a 46-yard kickoff return. Sutton returned a punt 23 yards that helped the Vols gain field position as they were trying to run out the clock.
It was a long time coming, but Tennessee’s coaches finally got their receivers involved. The Vols’ coaches also showed some nice creativity on the goal line with two 2-yard touchdown passes to running back Alvin Kamara in the flat. Defensively, Tennessee dared UGA quarterback Greyson Lambert to beat them, even though Chubb was out. It put a ton of pressure on the secondary, but it was the best option. The Vols were much more aggressive in the passing game, which has been long overdue. On the other hand, Tennessee’s coaches have been blasted for being too conservative this season. It worked at times on Saturday. The Vols stuck with Dobbs when it looked like he might need to be replaced. The Vols punted on their final possession when every armchair quarterback was screaming to go for it. On their own 43-yard line, it was clearly the right call. However, the Vols did most of their work before the game even started. After a horrendous start to the season, the dismissal of a once-key player and rumors of a physical altercation between Jones and Crowder, the Vols were ready to play.
Don’t average the above grades and expect to get the overall assessment posted here. It doesn’t add up that way. As with any game, there are plenty of instances to critique and even nitpick. However, the bottom line is the Vols scored one of the most memorable victories in a decade, broke a five-year losing streak to a key rival and kept their (long shot) hopes of getting to Atlanta alive. The Vols head into a bye week feeling good about themselves and a big-time performance from their quarterback.