Tennessee proves — if nothing else — it has ‘will to win’
You just knew he was going to have a cliché ready.
Even after finding a way to claim a historically unique 42-41 double-overtime victory in a game in which his team had given up more than a third of a mile in total offense and held the ball for barely over a quarter, Butch Jones would somehow describe Tennessee’s victory over Georgia Tech on Monday night using stock phrases that either he or someone else had used millions of times before.
“We talked about our will to win,” Jones told ESPN’s Maria Taylor, who was the first person to present Jones with a microphone after Tennessee defensive end Darrell Taylor stopped Georgia Tech’s attempt at an all-or-nothing 2-point conversion to end the game. “We found out about our will to win.”
Jones went on to use the phrase “will to win” twice more in a 90-second interview with Taylor and two more times in the first three sentences of his postgame press conference. Rhetorically at least, he remains nothing if not predictable.
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But hey, when he’s right, he’s right.
One of the only things the Vols learned about themselves Monday night that will have any relevance going forward is that they have inside of them a wellspring of resilience, which they will have to tap into again. The experience of winning a game in which so little was going according to plan is something they can draw upon two weeks from now in the Swamp, and then again for the rest of the year.
They can throw out just about everything else they saw Monday night, because there are no more Georgia Techs on the schedule.
The 655 total yards and all-time worst 535 rushing yards Tennessee allowed to the Yellow Jackets strongly suggest that the Vols have major defensive issues, but Georgia Tech’s flexbone triple option is so different than anything else Tennessee will see all year that it seems foolish to presume those numbers will translate to SEC play. Jones said the Vols would spend a lot of time watching the film, but with a short week separating Tennessee from its game Saturday against Indiana State, it makes just as much sense for them to move on and enjoy the relief of no longer having to spend every waking moment thinking about cut blocks.
The breakdowns the Vols had against the pass are much less excusable than the ones they had defending the run, considering the Yellow Jackets finished 124th of 128 FBS teams in passing offense last year. However, making opponents look dumb on the very rare occasions they throw the ball is also a significant part of what Georgia Tech does. Even though the Yellow Jackets finished last in the ACC in passing yards per game in 2016, they ranked first in yards per pass. The fact that the Vols gave up 120 yards on 10 passes Monday night does not at all suggest that they will surrender 600 against spread teams that throw it 50 times. In the future, their defensive backs will be able to cover without having to think about their responsibilities on the pitch and about linemen diving at their knees, and their defensive ends will actually have a chance to create a pass rush.
Some of the Vols’ positives won’t necessarily translate either. Sophomore linebacker Daniel Bituli was outstanding, but he won’t have 23 tackles every week and his responsibilities will change significantly against spread teams. Junior Quinten Dormady’s 12 for 17 second half was impressive, but he’ll face nastier pass rushes and better secondaries in the SEC, and he hasn’t ended the quarterback competition with redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano. Junior running back John Kelly was brilliant down the stretch, but he won’t be that fresh-legged late in most games, because the Vols most likely won’t post less than 20 minutes of time of possession in a game the rest of this season.
The Vols’ most important and most legitimate individual development was the emergence of sophomore wide receiver Marquez Callaway, but his sensational 4-reception, 115-yard, 2-touchdown performance only happened because of a wrist injury to preseason All-SEC pick Jauan Jennings that apparently will cost him the rest of the regular season. Callaway’s display of breakaway speed and leaping ability salves that wound somewhat, but the Vols would much rather he be Jennings’ complement than his fill-in.
What does matter, though, is what the Vols summoned when they were exhausted. Junior defensive back Rashaan Gaulden caused the tide-turning fumble at the end of what would have been a back-breaking run by Georgia Tech’s J.J. Green. At the end of a 2-minute drill, the likes of which Georgia Tech almost never pulls off, walk-on Paul Bain got his paw on what would have been a game-winning field goal to make sure the Vols saw overtime. And on the game’s last play, Taylor, the undersized defensive end, managed to shake off two more blocks after having to hurdle bodies all night to cut off TaQuon Marshall’s running lane, forcing him to try to flip a desperation pass to the perimeter.
Those are signs of a team that has, to use Jones’ words, will and “grit,” which is particularly impressive considering how much turnover there has been in the Vols’ leadership with Joshua Dobbs, Alvin Kamara, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Derek Barnett and Cameron Sutton among the contingent that moved on to the NFL. So as cliché as it might be, if the only thing the Vols learned about in Week 1 was their will to win, they learned something valuable indeed.