Tennessee Football & The Second Half Collapse

I mean, they sure went to a lot of trouble on this sign to not spell the guy's name right. #smallvictories

Derek Dooley is 9-11 in his first twenty games as the head coach in Knoxville.  In all but one of those losses - Georgia in Athens last year - the Vols were within ten points of the lead at halftime.  In five of those losses, the score was tied at halftime.

Before we dive in to what's gone wrong in the second half, it's important to note that the Vols have never held a halftime lead in any of the games they've lost under Dooley.  So obviously, Tennessee could also start a little better.  On the other hand, the Vols have led at halftime in every one of Dooley's victories.  So basically, you can trust the halftime score under Dooley's watch...unless it's tied, and then it's gone south for the Vols.  

Here's the familiar chain of events that has deprived Dooley of a signature win, and kept frustration fresh in Knoxville.

#7 OREGON

  • Halftime:  13-13 tie
  • Final:  48-13 Oregon
  • Key Play:  Matt Simms interception at the Oregon 27, returned for a touchdown with 6:27 to play in the third quarter, giving Oregon a 27-13 lead.
  • First Half Yardage:  UT 239 - Oregon 200
  • Second Half Yardage:  UT 94 - Oregon 247
Big plays did the Vols in here:  LaMichael James had a 72 yard touchdown run, followed by the Simms interception, followed later by an 80 yard punt return TD by Kenjon Barner.  Another theme that's present in some of these losses:  Oregon had a big sequence just before halftime, getting a field goal to make it 13-6 with 2:56 to go, getting the ball back, and striking on a 27 yard touchdown pass to David Paulson just before halftime.  This team went on to play for the National Championship.

#10 FLORIDA

  • Halftime:  7-3 Florida
  • Final:  31-17 Florida
  • Key Play:  Florida fake punt at their own 39 yard line for a first down with 6:55 left in the third quarter in a 10-10 game.  The Gators would then convert 3rd and 8 and 3rd and 7 for a touchdown.
  • First Half Yardage:  UT 75 - Florida 89
  • Second Half Yardage:  UT 213 - Florida 228
The best example of the Vols fighting through adversity in the second half that doesn't involve Tyler Bray.  Florida got a field goal on their opening drive of the third quarter before Matt Simms hit Denarius Moore for a 49 yard touchdown to tie the score.  Another long pass to Justin Hunter cut Florida's lead to 24-17 in the fourth quarter.  The issue here:  three turnovers, including an end zone pick from Simms in the first half and a fumble from Poole that essentially ended the game at 31-17 in the fourth quarter.  And a continuous theme:  Florida went 8 of 14 on third down and won time of possession by thirteen minutes.

at #12 LSU
  • Halftime:  7-7 tie
  • Final:  16-14 LSU
  • Key Play:  The one after the game was over.
  • First Half Yardage:  UT 96 - LSU 201
  • Second Half Yardage:  UT 121 - LSU 233
Another example of the Vols fighting through adversity in the second half, though some LSU people have pointed out that they felt like Tennessee actually played a better game against the Tigers this year than last year.  Four turnovers from LSU kept the Vols alive, but the shenanigans at the end were set up by LSU converting a 4th and 14 on their final drive.

(here's where the Georgia first half blowout goes)

#8 ALABAMA
  • Halftime:  13-10 Alabama
  • Final:  41-10 Alabama
  • Key Play:  Really the whole second half, but when Matt Simms was intercepted in the end zone with the Vols down 27-10 with 4:42 to play in the third quarter, it was officially over.
  • First Half Yardage:  UT 141 - Alabama 266
  • Second Half Yardage:  UT 174 - Alabama 270
This first half was actually a lot less close than the one we saw Saturday.  The Vols got most of their yardage on a 59 yard score by Tauren Poole, while Alabama drove inside the UT 40 five times and came away with only 13 points.  In the second half, the Tide quit screwing around with scoring drives of 70, 65, 80, and 80 yards.  Meanwhile the Vols moved the ball but couldn't find any points thanks to turnovers and missed field goals.

at #20 SOUTH CAROLINA
  • Halftime:  10-10 tie
  • Final:  38-24 South Carolina
  • Key Play:  Just after the Vols tied the score at 24-24 with thirteen minutes to play, Alshon Jeffery scored on a 70 yard catch and run to put Carolina back in front for good.
  • First Half Yardage:  UT 193 - Carolina 222
  • Second Half Yardage:  UT 211 - Carolina 213
The Tyler Bray factor didn't make a big difference in yardage, but points and big plays definitely changed.  Tennessee's defense also bent without breaking in the third quarter, but ultimately couldn't hold with a now-familiar script in the fourth quarter:  one big play, followed by a rushing attack that grinds you to death.  The Vols won time of possession, but Carolina went 7 of 13 on third down.

NORTH CAROLINA
  • Halftime:  17-14 UNC
  • Final:  30-27 UNC (2OT)
  • Key Play:  I think you know.
  • First Half Yardage:  UT 191 - UNC 197
  • Second Half/OT Yardage:  UT 148 - UNC 188
In terms of being competitive (and not turnover fortunate as was the case in Baton Rouge), this is actually the best the Vols have looked in a game they certainly should've won.  Though the offense still bogged down in the second half even with Bray, Tennessee made the plays they needed to make offensively on a clutch 10 play 63 yard drive that should've won the game.  But then the missed extra point and Carolina's final drive...again, I think you know.

Here too, Carolina got a quick strike score at the end of the first half that also shouldn't have happened.  This may show up as the "worst" of the losses considering UNC was unranked, but don't forget this team put nine players in the NFL Draft.

at #16 FLORIDA
  • Halftime:  16-7 Florida
  • Final:  33-23 Florida
  • Key Play:  Justin Hunter's injury in the first half.  Tyler Bray's interception on the first play of the second half.
  • First Half Yardage:  UT 179 - Florida 191
  • Second Half Yardage:  UT 100 - Florida 156
The Gators didn't have to have big yardage numbers because the Vols gave them tremendous field position throughout the game.  I'd still chalk most of this one up to Hunter's sudden absence; the defense still did a nice job keeping it within reach.  If Michael Palardy makes that field goal on UT's opening drive, the Vols are driving to tie at the end of the game.  Also, remember, this was Florida With John Brantley, not Present Day Florida.

GEORGIA
  • Halftime:  6-6 tie
  • Final:  20-12 Georgia
  • Key Play:  Marlin Lane's apparent touchdown is overturned when replay shows his knee was down, replacing a 13-13 tie with a fourth down punt with six minutes to play in the third quarter.  Backed up at their own 7, Georgia went 71 yards to Malcolm Mitchell on the first play, then Isaiah Crowell scored from 17 out two plays later to make it 20-6.
  • First Half Yardage:  UT 174 - UGA 162
  • Second Half Yardage:  UT 96 - UGA 204
The story here immediately became Bray's thumb, but this was a depressing second half overall.  The Vols moved the ball all over the place in the first half but couldn't finish drives.  But that all stopped in the second half with a three and out, the Lane overturn, a false start on 3rd and 1 that turned into a punt, another three and out, then Bray's injury.  A small, slow death, but a death nonetheless.

#1 LSU
  • Halftime:  17-7 LSU
  • Final:  38-7 LSU
  • Key Play:  Third down conversions to open the third quarter:  LSU got 3rd and 4 and 3rd and 5 en route to a 24-7 lead, then got 3rd and 7 backed up at their own 4 yard line en route to a 99 yard touchdown drive.
  • First Half Yardage:  UT 165 - LSU 150
  • Second Half Yardage:  UT 74 - LSU 233
The Vols actually outgained the Tigers in the first half, but repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with drops, penalties, and two interceptions on offense leading to just seven points.  Here again, a big play just before the half turned a one score game into a two score game.  LSU simply dominated in the run game in the second half, winning time of possession by sixteen minutes overall.

at #2 ALABAMA
  • Halftime:  6-6 tie
  • Final:  37-6 Alabama
  • Key Play:  Matt Simms sneaks on 4th and 1 and is denied after a questionable spot with Bama up 13-6 in the third quarter.  The Tide score a touchdown on the very next play and the rout is on.
  • First Half Yardage:  UT 114 - Alabama 157
  • Second Half Yardage:  UT 41 - Alabama 280
Much like LSU and much stronger than the previous year against the Tide, the Vols stood up for themselves in the first half and played toe to toe with Alabama.  In the second half, the Vols couldn't get a first down and fell victim to an avalanche of mistakes and Bama points.  Same result as LSU with a slightly better beginning and a much more frustrating finish thanks to the turnovers and inability to move the ball at all in the second half.

So...what have we learned?

First, remember who we've played.  Other than the Georgia blowout last year, eight of UT's ten losses have come against teams ranked in the Top 20, all of which the Vols were very much in at halftime.  The two close-at-halftime losses to unranked teams were to the NFL-talent-laden Tar Heels, and the Georgia team most believe will win the SEC East.  Florida had John Brantley this year and was ranked #10 last year, even though it didn't turn out so well for them.  South Carolina won the SEC East last year.  All of the other losses were to BCS caliber teams.

It may all feel the same, but remember:  Lane Kiffin lost to 7-6 UCLA and 8-5 Auburn teams.  In 2008 the Vols lost to Wyoming, an Auburn team that got Tommy Tuberville fired, and a 7-6 South Carolina team.  Dooley's road has been tougher not just because of attrition on the roster, but also because the Vols are facing tougher competition.

Second:  both sides of the ball are to blame.  The Vols have been outgained in the second half in every one of these losses.  Tennessee is averaging a pedestrian 127.2 yards in the second half of these ten games, while giving up an average of 225.2 yards in the second half.  It's not just big plays and turnovers, it's ball movement.  Those averages aren't going to beat anybody of merit.  The offense has to sustain drives and keep the defense off the field.  The more that happens, the less likely the defense will be to give up third downs and big plays, both of which have crushed the Vols in the second half of these losses.

The balance between depth and halftime adjustments is an interesting conversation, though like most things with this program, I'm not sure we can fairly answer it right now.  Tennessee played well enough to win in the second half against LSU and North Carolina last year, and to a degree, against Florida last year, where they at least responded to adversity.  And the Vols fought back against South Carolina last year, and Florida and Georgia this year.

It's only been the truly great teams - Oregon and Alabama last year, LSU and Alabama this year - that have obliterated the Vols in the second half.  Three of those teams could've/could win a National Championship, and last year's Alabama team was almost as talented as this year's model.  A significant percentage of this has to simply be that Tennessee is not ready to fight teams of that magnitude for sixty minutes.  It is what it is right now.

What will make it change?  For one, more bodies, more experience, and getting everybody back on the field.  That's not coming until 2012 though, and believe me, that team will be fully expected to compete for sixty minutes.  Part of it is talent and depth, plain and simple.

But another part of it is confidence, and confidence can only be earned, not taught.  What the Vols picked up against Cincinnati was false confidence - not because the Bearcats are lousy, but beating Cincy in Knoxville offered no guarantees in Gainesville, and Tennessee found that out.  If the Vols finish 6-6, it'll take a special bowl performance against a worthy opponent to teach this team true confidence.

Either way, I'm sure the 2012 Vols led by Bray, Rogers, and Hunter will have plenty of confidence come next August.  But it won't be real until we see it displayed in a meaningful victory - not real for us, and not real for them.  You have to have it to win big games...and the only way to get it is to win a big game.

But for the other players on this team, especially the guys on defense?  That confidence can still be earned, to a degree, this season.

There's still enough data to make everyone wearing orange fearful of the second half.  The only way Tennessee can prove to themselves and everyone else that they're not fragile is to go out there and do it in the second thirty minutes.  Not against MTSU, Vanderbilt, or Kentucky.  But in a game like the one we'll see Saturday.

As such, this is a huge opportunity for this team and a key chance for growth.  Not just for Justin Worley, but for everyone involved, including Derek Dooley.  If this team is going to get the sort of win that will truly make them a less fragile, more confident football team going forward, time is running out.  And South Carolina in Knoxville sounds a lot better than Arkansas in Fayetteville.  I'm just not sure a game against the sixth place team in the ACC in the Music City Bowl would do it - bowls are funny, and it would depend on who it is.  It shouldn't matter, but it will - there will be a difference between beating, say, Wake Forest and beating, say, Miami.

But none of that is guaranteed yet.  This team still has some growing to do that will be very important for the present and the future.  And the best opportunity to grow up comes Saturday night in Neyland Stadium.

Go Vols.
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