Derek Dooley mentioned that even before the season, he'd gone back and examined the Vols' tendencies in the final fifteen minutes over the last two years. What we find there isn't pretty, and enough has gone wrong for UT in the fourth quarter (and a little beyond) in the last two years to suggest that, as Dooley says, there could be a cultural issue at play with this team's ability to fight back from adversity at crucial junctures.
6:27 remained in the third quarter when Matt Simms threw his interception last week. The play put the Vols down 27-13, but time wasn't a factor and Tennessee had 313 yards of total offense at that point - we had been moving the ball well, and had just answered the LaMichael James touchdown with a drive into the Oregon red zone before the pick.
But from there, the wind left the sails in a hurry. Oregon was driving again when the fourth quarter began, fired a 29 yard tochdown pass two minutes later, and eventually scored 21 points in the final period to turn what could've been a tie game with 20 minutes left into a 35 point blowout.
How else have the Vols struggled to find answers in the fourth quarter recently? The one possible exception was last year's Kentucky game, which the Vols won with a touchdown in overtime after UK missed a field goal on their OT possession; that was a game Kentucky led 21-14 at halftime, but the Vols tied it with nine minutes left in the third quarter and took a 24-21 lead later in the period. The Vol defense did hold Kentucky to a field goal after the Cats drove to the red zone on their final possession of regulation, so while it wasn't a fourth quarter come from behind performance, the team did play well down the stretch.
Other than that? Well...
- 2009 Virginia Tech: The Hokies led 27-14 with 13:33 to play when Tennessee got a first down at their own 41. On the next play, Denarius Moore got behind the coverage and dropped a sure touchdown. From there, Tech outscored the Vols 10-0 around two Tennessee turnovers en route to a 37-14 blowout; Tech scored the game's final 23 points.
- 2009 Ole Miss: Down 21-14 at halftime, the Vols opened the third with a field goal and a Wes Brown interception, driving to the Ole Miss 35. 3rd and 2 became 4th and 4, and the Vols couldn't convert, giving the ball back to Ole Miss with 9:49 left in the third. From there, the Rebels outscored Tennessee 21-0 in a 42-17 win.
- 2009 Alabama: Almost an example of how to do it right against the eventual National Champion on the road...Leigh Tiffin made a 49 yard field goal with 6:31 to play to put Alabama ahead 12-3, and the Vols went three and out. Mark Ingram fumbled to give the Vols the ball at the Bama 43 with 3:29 to play. Tennessee scored, got the onside kick, and got within field goal range before the kick was blocked and the upset was denied. Not a collapse, but still a missed opportunity to win.
- 2009 UCLA: (facepalm) Down 19-10 at the start of the fourth, the Vols had 1st and 10 at the UCLA 14...and kicked a field goal. UCLA went three and out, and the Vols drove to 1st and goal at the UCLA 7...and were stopped on fourth down from the 2. After a UCLA safety gave the Vols the ball back at their own 40 with 1:41 to play, Jonathan Crompton took a sack and threw three not-even-close incompletions to seal the Vols' fate.
- 2008 Wyoming: The Vols scored their only touchdown to cut Wyoming's lead to 13-7 with 10:08 to play in the third quarter. From there, all four of Tennessee's remaining drives reached Wyoming territory, but none produced any points.
- 2008 Georgia: A Lucas Taylor touchdown cut Georgia's lead to 20-14 with 5:37 to play in the third quarter. Georgia responded with two drives of 11 and 17 plays, both ending in field goals, which were enough since the Vol offense managed only one additional first down.
- 2008 Auburn: My eyes! After scoring in the opening minute of the fourth quarter but missing the two point conversion to cut Auburn's lead to 14-12, the Vol defense held Auburn to a four play drive and three straight three and outs on their next four possessions. Tennessee's offense responded with four straight three and outs of their own, despite all four drives starting past the UT 40 with only a field goal needed to win.
- 2008 UCLA: Leading 14-7 with first and goal at the 6, Arian Foster fumbled to give UCLA the ball back with 10:17 to play in the third quarter. While the Vols went three and out on their next three drives, UCLA kicked a field goal, then drove 80 yards to take the lead 17-14 with 6:51 to play. When Tennessee responded with a touchdown to make it 21-17 with only 1:54 to go, UCLA went 70 yards on the mustang to make it 24-21 with :27 to play. Those 27 seconds were enough for Daniel Lincoln to get it to overtime, but he couldn't keep us there. Not a total collapse, but absolutely should've never happened.
- 2007 LSU: Leading 14-13 with the ball against the eventual National Champions with ten minutes to play, Erik Ainge's pick six would be followed by another fourth quarter INT at the LSU 7 with 2:42 to play to seal it.
Though the losses end there, we should also note that the Vols did everything they could to give away two different 17 point leads to Kentucky in 2007, with the Cats coming up a yard short in regulation before losing in four overtimes.
That means the last time Tennessee has come from behind in the fourth quarter to win was Vanderbilt, 2007. That's actually the largest fourth quarter comeback in Neyland Stadium history (down 24-9), so apparently we used all of our good fourth quarter vibes breaking that record, and used whatever fumes remained in overtime with Kentucky.
Counting last week, that's ten games that players on this team were involved in that could've gone the other way and were competitive midway through the third quarter...and the Vols lost every one of them. This doesn't even count a relatively competitive game with Florida last year, or the late surge against Auburn that fell short last year.
Since only Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore, and Luke Stocker were involved at all with the 2007 Vanderbilt comeback, that means almost the entire team has no idea how to do it in a Tennessee uniform. Did that mindset come into play when Oregon went up two touchdowns with 21 minutes to play? I think everyone involved would say yes.
As Dooley mentioned, the first step is naming the problem and owning up to it. Culture won't change overnight, and Florida has to think that if they jump the Vols early, or throw a couple big plays at them in the second half, Tennessee hasn't shown an ability to answer the bell.
The only way to change this is to beat a team in the fourth quarter. I'd love to pounce on Florida early and never let them up, but that may be asking too much. If things are tight or we're down one possession with the ball in the final minutes, who on this team will step up and change things? Who will win the game for the Vols?
Great teams play great football in the fourth quarter, and excel at overcoming adversity. We're nowhere near a great team yet, and until we can win a game in the fourth quarter, we'll have no right to be one. It has to start somewhere.
The last words spoken are "Carry the fight to your opponent and keep it there for sixty minutes." To beat Oregon, Florida, and the rest of the big names on our schedule, it's going to take all sixty. Is this team capable? We'll get another chance to see on Saturday...but until we win one of these late, this cloud is going to continue to hover over our players and our downtrodden program. Someone has to make a difference. Something has to change from quitting to winning.