Sit back and secure your retaining bars tightly. The Tennessee roller coaster entered curve number three this weekend with a noon kick against Ohio. The MAC was looking for a second straight season with a win against an SEC team. Toledo beat Arkansas last season.
The danger for Tennessee was the time and place. A noon start for a game sandwiched between the spectacle that was Bristol last week and the unquestionable most important game of the season against Florida next week. And that danger was realized as the Vols came out and had another lackluster effort.
Tennessee Game Grades: Ohio Edition
Tennessee started a reshuffled offensive line, but there’s still clearly work to be done. Additionally, quarterback Joshua Dobbs was again on a limited carry count. Tennessee’s offensively lethargy is concerning going into Florida week. The Gators defense is much better than anything the Vols have seen over the first three weeks. This is an offense that thrives on rhythm and Tennessee has yet to find a consistent rhythm in 10 of its 12 quarters this season.
Offensive Stat of the Game: 4/4. Tennessee fumbled the ball four times on Saturday and recovered each time. For a decided underdog to complete the big upset, they must win the turnover battle. If Tennessee loses even one of these fumbles, the result could be different.
It seemed that Tennessee was intent on establishing the passing game early. Joshua Dobbs completed several early passes, including a touchdown to Josh Malone, their first of two touchdown connections on the day. But, perfectly mimicking the season so far, Dobbs went cold in the second and third quarters only to find his touch again late in the game. Again, the biggest contribution Dobbs made was on the ground. When the play calling allows Dobbs to run, it opens up so much for the Vols attack. It really is that simple. There is a direct correlation between Joshua Dobbs rushing attempts and Tennessee success. Dobbs accounted for three of the Volunteers four touchdowns.
Dobbs has three total touchdowns and the Vols win! pic.twitter.com/JFU9ujRy2P
Running Backs: C+
The running game was unexpectedly stagnant today. Neither Jalen Hurd nor Alvin Kamara seemed to be on their game, especially in the first half. Hurd did have some powerful runs in the second half with key first down pickups. While there is plenty of responsibility to go around, the running backs lacked explosiveness in the holes and were hesitant to make cuts when necessary.
Tennessee’s wide outs continue to be a pleasant surprise this season. Josh Malone had another productive day, with five receptions for 69 yards and two touchdowns. Jason Croom also had a productive day. There were no obvious drops. However, Preston Williams let a pass bounce right off of his hands and turn into an interception. The wide outs also struggled blocking, as evident in the lack of success of the many, many receiver screen plays.
Dobbs has three total touchdowns and the Vols win! pic.twitter.com/JFU9ujRy2P
Offensive Line: D
The offensive line is the biggest weakness for this team. The Vols started a different combination up front, but that didn’t make much difference. Jack Jones started at right guard and Drew Richmond was replaced at left tackle. Again, just as we saw with Appalachian State, the offensive line lost too many individual battles. They didn’t execute their run blocking schemes well and struggled in pass protection against a base rush. As Tennessee enters conference play, an inability to control the line of scrimmage will spell doom for their title hopes.
More important than the score (at least from an assessment perspective) was Ohio’s ability to move the ball. The Bobcats gained 318 yards on 17 first downs. More importantly, from Tennessee’s perspective, is they ran ten more plays (80-70) than the Vols. The Bobcats had five different scoring drives, although four of them ended in field goals. Again, had the Bobcats converted just two of those four into touchdowns, the day could have been a complete disaster.
Defensive Stat of the Game: Tennessee had 9 penalties for 94 yards.
Defensive Line: B-
Back on the roller coaster, the defensive front four failed to get sustained pressure until late in the second half. Derek Barnett was the only defensive player routinely in the backfield, and while he didn’t record a sack, but he did have two quarterback pressures and one tackle for a loss. Jonathan Kongbo saw his first extensive look at defensive tackle today and looked good. This unit came into the season with the expectations higher than any other Tennessee unit. So far, they haven’t quite met those expectations, but are still playing well. As with the offensive line, going into conference play the defensive line needs to improve their ability to influence the line of scrimmage.
The linebacking corps was the biggest question mark entering the game with the injury to Darren Kirkland, Jr. It’s an even bigger question mark after losing Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Quart’e Sapp to injury during the game. In their absence, Colton Jumper and Cortez McDowell played effectively. Jumper, especially, played better than any other game he’s played in during the last two season. Their performance wasn’t great, but they held their own in a tough fill-in role. The Bobcats never had successful big run or underneath route go through the linebackers area. No word on what the injury to Jalen Reeves-Maybin, but Tennessee fans will be paying close attention to that.
Defensive Backs: C-
The defensive backfield struggled today, no doubt about it. Emmanuel Moseley was beat on at least three passes and had a couple of pass interference calls to go with that. While the Ohio passing stats weren’t eye-popping, they were effective in utilizing the underneath passing game to gain many of those aforementioned 17 first downs. The injury to Cam Sutton is as concerning for Vols fans as the injury to Reeves-Maybin, with Antonio Callaway coming to Knoxville next weekend.
Special Teams: C
Ohio did a good job of keeping the ball out of Evan Berry‘s hand. And when Berry did get a chance, a bad penalty brought the ball back 30+ yards. Two punt returns had penalties as well, which put the offense even further back. While coverage was good today, the return teams squandered several opportunities to provide the offense with good field position, something that they did routinely last season.
The offensive staff again had Joshua Dobbs on some artificial “carry count”, like a “pitch count” in baseball. Keeping Dobbs healthy for the upcoming stretch is important, but getting the offense in rhythm and putting the game away is more important. It’s Week 3 and almost the entire offense is back, so putting things on film should be the least of their concerns.
The defense has also looked extremely conservative. When Tennessee has brought pressure, they’ve generally been successful this season. But they allowed far too many plays and first downs to a Bobcat team that was over matched at each position.
Next game: Florida (Home). The Tennessee roller coaster enters its scariest portion. This is the most important game of the season and the most important game of the Butch Jones era to date. Tennessee fans can’t be as confident heading into this game as they were coming out of the off season. In addition to the impact in standings — this game will be a critical component to the SEC East Division title — it will have a tremendous impact on the psychology of this team. And it’ll have recruiting ramifications.
Florida has played solid this season. Their defense has played very well and the offense seems to have a consistent quarterback in Jake Del Rio. Tennessee will have to play better than they have in the first three games if they want to end a decade-long losing streak to their biggest divisional rival. Tennessee follows up Florida with Georgia, Texas A&M, and then Alabama.
Strap-in, this roller coaster is just getting to good part.