Much like our bald, speech-impaired friend, we may be slower than we used to and our weapons may not always be effective...but if given the chance, under the right circumstances, we could potentially be effective in stopping Ducks in their tracks...maybe. Just maybe. Be very, very quiet.
Last week gave you an initial, blurry impression. But even though it was only UT-Martin, the fact that no glaring weaknesses presented themselves, combined with the fact that it's only the second week of the season, means you go into this game with just enough hope to be dangerous. It's not that we expect to take care of business easily, or even at all...but until Oregon goes up two possessions, I won't be resigned to defeat. It's unbecoming of us as Tennessee fans...and I hope we never get used to it.
Oregon was all kinds of explosive last year, gets LaMichael James back this week, and should be the favorite. They certainly looked like one of the best teams in college football last week in their 72-0 opener...but like us, it was only New Mexico.
So I'm curious, with a splash of hope. If that hope is going to grow into something more and our curiosity replaced with any thought of victory, here's where it has to start:
1. Win Time of Possession
Lots of things got lost in the shuffle of Boise State's 19-8 win over Oregon last year because of The Punch. With all the places we've found hope in that box score because of Justin Wilcox, the most important and most glaring one really hasn't been mentioned much: the Broncos played keep-away from Oregon to the tune of 42:32 to 17:28.
Here's the first half of that game:
- Oregon 3 and out
- Boise 18 plays, 84 yards, 8:41, missed FG
- Oregon 3 and out
- Boise 9 plays, 26 yards, 4:48, missed FG
- Oregon 3 and out
- Boise 11 plays, 50 yards, 5:15, TD
- Oregon 3 and out
- Boise 6 plays, 16 yards, punt
- Oregon safety
- Boise 10 plays, 30 yards, FG
- Oregon 3 and out
Boise then opened the second half with a nine play TD drive, followed by another Oregon three and out, and there were additional second half drives where Jeremiah Masoli threw an interception on the first play of one and fumbled on the second play of another. The rest of the season showed us that Oregon had a truly explosive offense...but when you're on the sideline, your fuse isn't burning.
You can't expect the Vol defense to open with six straight three and outs and a safety, but there is obviously tremendous value in keeping Oregon's offense off the field. Not only does it keep them off the scoreboard, but it gives the thin Tennessee defense time to rest...and if it's going to be an aggressive Wilcox defense on Saturday night, it'll need that rest even more.
If Tennessee can line up in the I like we saw for most of the night against UT-Martin and move the chains running against Oregon's defense, Tennessee's chances in this game go way, way up. This Vol offense doesn't appear to be built to score points in bunches or manufacture big comebacks...but if we can grind it out and run the clock, maybe we can wear down their defense in the Tennessee humidity (projected gameday high temps currently in the upper 80s) and find the points we need. Dooley's comments early this week about a ten play drive for us taking up the entire quarter being fine with him were telling.
2. Win the turnover battle
Copy and paste this for every one of the big games we'll play between now and November. If we don't get this one done, we're not going to get much winning done.
It's an unfortunate fact that this Tennessee team needs all the help it can get. The Vols cannot afford to give Oregon good field position, and cannot afford to waste scoring opportunities, and most of all we can't give them anything for free. Even if our defense doesn't come up with any turnovers, the offense has to make sure we're not giving anything away. This means ball security and good decision making from Matt Simms. The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win.
Simms' decision making leads us to...
3. Take the right chances in the passing game
Can Tennessee beat Oregon if Simms throws for 181 yards? You'd have to assume total domination by the young offensive line in the run game if you answered yes, which would go a long way toward taking care of item #1 on this list...but since I think it'll take some of all five to give ourselves a chance to win in the fourth quarter, I think Simms is going to have to make a play or two.
Good news here: Oregon's pass defense was a huge hole at the end of last year, and even with some new faces this year, New Mexico is not an indication that everything is better now. Check out what Oregon allowed in four of their last five games in the 2009 season:
- at Stanford: 251 passing yards, 51 points
- at Arizona: 314 passing yards, 41 points
- vs Oregon State: 306 passing yards, 33 points
- vs Ohio State: 266 passing yards, 26 points
Opportunities were there against this secondary, and should be there for Simms at times on Saturday, especially if the Vols can make the Ducks work to stop the run (more than they're probably already planning to). We shouldn't try to live by the pass, but we will need it to survive. When the Vols go play action, can Simms make a throw under pressure? Can we go vertical and find the big plays we may need to give ourselves any chance to score?
4. Defensive Aggression: Crazy, not stupid
I'm just excited to see what Justin Wilcox will do with no reason to hide anything for a future opponent. Monte's defense was more than fine, but it was also more predictable. And we won't turn this into a post debating the merits of John Chavis...we'll hold that thought for three weeks. But it's not that we're not used to seeing great defenses...I just have a feeling we're not used to seeing anything like what we're going to see on Saturday.
We fans, a lot of times, want to see a defense that blitzes on every play. It's exciting, it's risky, it's dangerous but we like it. But this was also a Tennessee team that last year, with the help of Eric Berry and Monte Kiffin, was tremendous at keeping the other team from big pass plays. For all the insane looks and blitzes that Wilcox may throw at Oregon, if we don't stay fundamentally sound, we're going to give up a lot of points.
On the other sideline will be Darron Thomas, who had a Simms-esque performance against New Mexico: 13 of 23, 220 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT. The INT was a terrible decision, which means he's capable of making another one...or two, or three, or you know, whatever he's in the mood for.
However, don't forget that in the 2008 meeting between Oregon and Boise State, the Ducks had to burn Thomas's redshirt when Masoli got a concussion. Though they came with the Broncos leading 37-13 at the start of the period, he fired three fourth quarter touchdown passes and threw for 210 yards, almost leading the Ducks back to victory. So he's known success against Wilcox before.
This, however, will be a different animal. This is Neyland Stadium on the road. Which brings us to...
5. You and Me
Both because my superfandom enjoys the illusion that you and me have anything to do with the outcome...and because with this Tennessee team, it's more difficult to find five reasons we'll beat anybody, let alone these guys.
But...best crowd of the year in 2009? UCLA. That was one of the best crowds in recent memory, worked into a frenzy with the new energy from Lane Kiffin and the hope of a week one blowout. UT-Martin may be Western Kentucky, but Oregon is not UCLA...and UCLA still beat us.
However, the Cal game from 2006 has also been brought up a lot this week. Pac-10 schools still remember that game, and I believe the environment made a difference then. It needs to make a difference Saturday.
Tickets are still available. You come and be loud. If Tennessee can make something good happen early, then we'll have a chance to grind it out and stay in front. And if the Vols can't make something good happen early, maybe we can make something bad happen for Oregon - five yards here, a timeout there, these things do add up. The energy in the stadium for UT-Martin last week was much better than I expected. If we want Saturday to be special, we need a special crowd.
I say it's duck season, and I say fire.