By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – November 18, 2018)
Yeah, that wasn’t good. I said on Friday’s Big 6 program that of the multiple similarities between the Titans and Vols, the biggest is the frustrating consistent inconsistency. When you least expect it, these are teams that will either rise to an occasion or get absolutely embarrassed. Entering Saturday’s matchup with the Missouri Tigers, Jeremy Pruitt’s Volunteers knew they had two opportunities at bowl eligibility, with the best chance coming against Vanderbilt, but by no means was either going to be an easy victory.
On paper, Missouri’s balanced offense led by Drew Lock’s 21 TDs and Larry Rountree’s nearly 900 rushing yards was likely to cause problems, but the Tiger defense certainly had issues of its own. However, on this day, it was all Missouri. As impressive as the Kentucky performance was, this one was the opposite. Here are my Big 6 Takeaways from the Saturday drubbing at Neyland.
SECONDARY WAS MAULED
Whether it was self-inflicted coverage concerns, tacking mistakes, or the brilliance of Drew Lock once he was fully dialed in, this was an ugly day for the Tennessee defense. After two weeks of really good football, the Volunteer secondary struggled to stay with Missouri’s receivers, made all the worse by Lock’s accuracy and ability to step into his throws in a relatively clean pocket. Only Kyle Phillips registered a sack, and there were ZERO hurries from Tennessee defenders.
What was most irksome about Lock’s day was how pedestrian it was compared to what he’s capable of doing, just two touchdowns and 21-30. The problem was 257 yards, as the Tennessee corners were victimized on chunk plays and throws that kept the chains moving.
ANOTHER RUNNING BACK GOES CRAZY
Larry Rountree III is very talented, elusive, and tough to bring down. Perhaps we should have seen his big day coming after watching this unit fail to corral the Gamecocks on the ground two weeks ago. At times, UT also couldn’t handle the Charlotte rushing attack, though the orange was able to do enough late to slow the Niners down. But Rountree was supremely efficient in this game, carrying 26 times for 135 yards and a score and adding an 18 yard reception to push over 150 all-purpose yards. He was great, which we expected, but the Tennessee defense aided him with poor tackling, bad angles, and no real adjustments to speak of.
For the day, Missouri averaged 4.6 yards per rush on 49 carries. That’s going to be a loss, nearly every time, and it certainly was on Saturday.
KILLER KELLER INTERCEPTION(S)
As fairly serviceable and at times pretty good as Keller Chryst has been this season, he effectively put the game out of reach with the errant throw late in the first half. He couldn’t find the placement to Wood-Anderson with Tennessee down 19-10 just outside the Missouri red zone. At worst, you’re hoping for a Cimaglia FG and a one possession game, but that DeMarkus Acy pick changed everything. He returned it 76 yards to set up a quick TD that was essentially the equivalent of a 10 point swing, factoring in the -3 for Tennessee and the +7 for Missouri.
Going into the half down 26-10 to that offense felt like an insurmountable advantage against Missouri, which is precisely what it proved to be. No question the Tigers were the superior team on Saturday, but down six going into intermission after Guarantano was knocked out and the Vols played as poorly as they did would have almost felt like a win. The momentum that could have begun to burn was snuffed out in a flash as Acy snatched the pass and took it to the Vols 11-yard line.
He was flat bad yesterday, including a second INT and a mishandled exchange with a running back. Tennessee probably wasn’t winning this even with JG in there, but you could clearly see how much better the team is with JG in there as well.
MATADORS UP FRONT
The O-Line was terrible, which would be “what else is new” territory had it not been for the effort this group put forth against Kentucky, whose defense should have been far more formidable. JG knocked out of the game early, three sacks overall on the day, but hurries all afternoon long and no one in the backfield could get comfortable, whether it was a quarterback or any of the running backs. Up until garbage time, the Vols hadn’t even rushed for 50 total yards in the football game. Late in the fourth quarter, after Missouri had already put up the 50 burger, Tennessee doubled their yardage total, but still fell well short of 100 on the ground. Nothing went right for UT on this day. Carlin Fils-aime managed to fumble one away as well, adding to a heavy turnover game for the Vols.
It’s something that we knew was an unsolvable problem, or at the very least, one that would fluctuate from week to week. Tennessee has to hope they get the OTHER O-Line back in Nashville, or Vanderbilt might get them.
THE TORTOISE RETURNS
One easily quantifiable reality for Tennessee this year is that early on, the team was plagued with horrific or flat starts, regardless of the opposition. It led to lackluster first halves and even unimpressive scores against ETSU and UTEP. Defense or special teams would make a play, and the offense would wake up a bit in the second half, or if it was a talented opponent, it might be close to over. But, in the back half of the season, the Vols have flipped the script and gotten off to torrid starts, and guess what, they’ve been both more competitive and more successful. Funny how that works. When you come out of the gate hot, you give yourself a much better chance to win. Whether it was matching Auburn or crushing Kentucky, it made a monumental difference.
Saturday’s first half featured three punts and an interception to go along with the lone touchdown from Ty Chandler and one field goal. Missouri didn’t take advantage early, which made you wonder if the Vols could turn it around and make the Tigers pay for their inability to cash in on the miscues and the changes of possession, but the Chryst pick made up for anything lacking from Mizzou’s scoring offense.
MUST. BEAT. VANDY.
It’s that simple. You win and you go to a bowl. You lose and a lot of the good vibes emanating from Knoxville will run into a wall for the next several months. Jeremy Pruitt has done a better-than-expected job, but he also still shows signs of being a rookie head coach that sometimes gets too aggressive for his own good. 6-6 with wins over Auburn, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt, a near miss against South Carolina, and a solid performance in a loss in Athens would still feel somewhat successful.
But, lose to the Commodores and it’s 5-7, there’s no more football to play in 2018, and Vols fans start watching college basketball. Jeremy Pruitt and this football team need this win, and these fans crave it, not just because it’s the in-state rival, but because they just want this feeling to continue. Saturday was such a step backward after a leap forward seven days earlier. The season can’t end with that taste in Knoxville’s collective mouth AND a no-show against the Dores.
THE LAST WORD
It was bad on all fronts, maybe sans Marquez Callaway on two big-boy catches where he showed yet again what he can be. There was no screen game, which should have been a staple of the offense, and the defense couldn’t stop the run or the pass. When you add in turnovers, you have a recipe for a blowout. The casserole tasted bitter to Vols fans, but the team found a way to cook at least half of it itself with poor execution and scheme struggles.
Vanderbilt hosts Tennessee here in the Music City six days from now. For the sake of trying to calm the losing culture and the cynicism that now accompanies this program, the Vols need to channel the Kentucky game and duplicate it. Lose that game? Ouch.