As was the case last week, we need to separate the things that are worth being upset about from the things that are not. After Georgia, we needed to be reasonable about what to expect from a team dealing with so many key injuries. With LSU, it's understanding the difference between things we should be doing better, and things that happen to you when you play the number one team in the nation.
Honestly? I feel much better about things this Sunday than I did last Sunday.
Not great. But better.
My primary concern after the Georgia game was our complete inability to run the football against any defense with a pulse. The fear was that without Tyler Bray, a Tennessee team that already couldn't run would now be completely ineffective for the rest of the season.
But against what is now the number six rush defense in the nation, Tennessee did run the ball effectively. In fact, the Vols averaged more yards per carry (3.83) than any team has against the Tigers this season, a list that includes Oregon, Mississippi State, West Virginia, and Florida.
(Good news: a surprising fourth in run defense nationally? Cincinnati, who the Vols ran for 126 on. Bad news: Alabama leads the nation in that category. By twenty-one yards. At 38.14 yards allowed per game. Yikes.)
Don't look at the total yardage (239). Look at time of possession: the Tigers swallowed up the second half and won TOP by more than sixteen minutes, running 69 plays to UT's 49. For the most part, a Tennessee offense led by Matt Simms moved the football against the vaunted LSU defense much better than any of us really thought they would.
Tennessee wasn't going to beat #1 LSU on most Saturdays. But we did see some of the pieces this team will need to have success going forward. If Tennessee can run that well against LSU, don't tell me the Vols can't run the rest of the season.
What else can we take from a thirty-one point loss to the number one team in the nation?
Things that have to get better:
- Catch the football. Da'Rick Rogers has done far, far more good than harm for this football team, and that was true again yesterday. But Rogers usually has at least one ball per game that he absolutely should pull in, but isn't able to. Zach Rogers dropped some tougher catches yesterday, but if you subscribe to the, "If you get your hands on it, you should catch it" law, he's a repeat offender. Tennessee's passing game is increasingly about backs and tight ends: Mychal Rivera was sensational last week, and against LSU Da'Rick was the only non-running back to catch a pass. This one of many things we'll get a better feel for when we're not playing LSU or Alabama, but the wide receivers have to help their own cause and cut down on the drops.
- Stop making stupid mistakes at the worst possible time. Tauren Poole, who had a good day running the ball, has to be a better leader than to fire the football at an LSU player's face and kill a drive with a personal foul penalty. At least, it should've killed the drive, but Marlin Lane's run on the next play set up fourth and one...when the Vols jumped early and then couldn't go for it. Especially early in a game with the team looking for momentum, you just can't do that stuff. We're not good enough to overcome our own stupidity - we have to replace the stupidity with maturity.
- Tackling from corners. LSU's clock-killing run game may get all the publicity, but I thought Rueben Randle was the player of the game. The junior wideout had five catches for 86 yards, but not only did he make UT's corners wave at thin air after he caught the ball, when he didn't catch the ball he treated them like children with his blocking. If you weren't at Neyland Stadium I'm not sure you could fully appreciate it, because he was literally blocking Marsalis Teague and Izauea Lanier out of frame when the Tigers went to the perimeter. Randle is 6'4" 208, which put UT's defensive backs out of their weight class. I'm not asking for these guys to be shutdown corners against great receivers, but you can't be tackling dummies either. That has to get better or the defense will keep giving up big plays.
Things I'm unsure of:
- Matt Simms. Simms is going to look better when he's not playing LSU or Alabama. The interceptions really hurt us - I had a conversation with my friends Friday night about how much of a hero we wanted Simms to try to be. Likewise, I don't know what he was told by Derek Dooley or Jim Chaney. Part of me knows we needed to take chances, and I'm sure he saw single coverage on Da'Rick on the first interception and took his shot. The other part of me saw Brendan Downs running wide open at about ten yards across the middle of the field on the same play, when not taking chances would've really helped us. I don't know how much better Simms will look after next week, but I do know we shouldn't kill a guy who's playing with an entire receiving corps he's never seen before in his first start of the year against the best team in America. Simms will get better. How much better, we'll find out.
- Playcalling on outside run plays. How many drives the last two weeks have been killed by a toss, stretch play, or even that horrific option play from Simms yesterday? How many times do we have to lose four yards before we decide we shouldn't be trying this stuff? I'm sure it keeps defenses honest to some degree, but I'm not sure we're good enough on the line or dynamic enough in the backfield to pop a big one going that far outside, especially against such fast defenses. If we try that against Alabama they may hit Simms before he even hands the ball off.
Things I believe in:
- Our red zone/short yardage defense. I know, I know, LSU just converted half of their third downs and stuck it to us in the second half. But again, that's a team that's crushing time of possession going at a young, thin defensive front. I commend our players for not using fatigue as an excuse after the game, but hey, I'll use it. What I do know is that in the first half, the Vols turned LSU away at the goal line the same way they did Cincinnati and Florida in short yardage situations. This is a defense that should have plenty of confidence when facing third and short; if our offense can keep them off the field a little longer, that quality should stretch into the second half...again, when we're not playing LSU or Alabama.
- Devrin Young is good because he's simple. Maybe there's something about Young's small size that makes him easy to lose, but watching him run he's the best kick returner we've had in years because he's so good at the number one rule of kick returns: run forward. Young isn't averaging 27 yards per return - the most since Dennis Rogan averaged 30 in 2007 - because he's juking out four or five guys. He does what he does because he runs fast in a straight line, and when he does make a cut, he does it without losing all his momentum or forward motion. It's apparently been rocket science around here the last few years that running forward fast is a good idea. It's not anymore.
We'll learn much more about this Matt Simms-led team as the second half of the season unfolds. An interesting question will present itself in two weeks: in a game without Tyler Bray and Marcus Lattimore, could the Vols be good enough to beat South Carolina in Knoxville?
But that will wait. The Third Saturday in October now approaches. There were some good things to take from a blowout loss to #1 LSU. But a blowout loss to Alabama - no matter their ranking - will not leave any of us in a good mood. There is no such thing as a moral victory when the opponent is Alabama. And so the annual battle cry will never change: