We've hit about every single angle from Saturday's 42-16 season-opening, rain-soaked win over Montana, but this is the weekly space where we hit you with a stock-exchange laundry list of things that seem on point and others that need work.
The Vols looked pretty good at times against the Griz, but there are still plenty of bullets for Derek Dooley to fire throughout the week of practice leading up to the Cincinnati game -- where UT opens as very narrow favorites. Below is a list of areas where Our Perfectly Coiffed Coach will set his crosshairs and a few that will be passed over.
Tyler Bray's Decision-Making. Pretty much every one of these bullet points can be couched with "I know it was Montana, but ..." so let's go ahead and get that phrase out of the way knowing that it applies throughout. But regardless of competition the UT sophomore quarterback was spectacular on Saturday, doing exactly what an elite quarterback is supposed to do against an inferior defense. He finished 17-of-24, and there were two very well-thrown passes that were flat-out dropped. Both of those would have gone for 30-plus yards at least, so his numbers could have been that much better. Also, before somebody points out his two penalty-negated interceptions, only one was a questionable decision. The other was completely altered because of the pass interference on the Mychal Rivera play. Plus, Bray made a ton of NFL throws, especially the long out to Justin Hunter in the first half. Just an incredible game with a big test looming.
- Lifeblood Plays. Ah yes, another Shepardism you guys should familiarize yourselves with me now writing over here. A "lifeblood play" is the kind of play that teams must make in order to sustain drives -- third- and fourth-down conversions. Without making those first downs, drives die, games falter, seasons fail. They're vital, and UT was good -- though could have been even better -- against Montana. The Vols finished 10-of-17 on third-down conversions and 1-of-3 on fourth downs. Overall, not too bad. The Hunter fourth-down drop was essentially there to convert, too, and it was a great play call. Anytime you convert more than 50 percent on lifeblood plays, you've got a good chance of winning. UT won easily.
- The Milk Carton Men on Defense. We all got a little case of Freshmanitis heading into this season, didn't we? All of us were blinded by the belief that Curt Maggitt, A.J. Johnson and Justin Coleman were going to anchor down the defense and help us return to prominence, right? Well, when the lights came on, those kids went through some "pimple plays" -- bumps you encounter while growing up on the field. Meanwhile, some guys missing from our preliminary plans showed out, and that bodes well for depth purposes down the road. Fourth linebacker Daryl Vereen flew all over the field [and looked even better on second watch], finishing with a team-high five tackles and living around the ball. Senior Art Evans should get a game ball, ending the game third on the team with three tackles and enjoying the biggest play of the game when he stepped in front of a Montana pass and pick-sixed it 37 yards later. Also, nickelback Eric Gordon registered four tackles and a TFL. Good on those guys!
- Running Lane. On a night when everybody in Big Orange fumed over the running game, a true freshman gave us a little hope. Marlin Lane showed nice burst on an 18-yard scamper in the first half and finished with 35 rushing yards on 10 carries. He also had two catches for 16 yards, though, including a 9-yard touchdown catch where he made a nice shift and a highlight-reel score. He finished with a couple of TDs and gave us a glimpse into a future where Vols running backs may roam the Earth once again.
Big Orange Style Points. No, we're not talking about on the scoreboard. From Dooley's sharp, Bill Battle-like orange pants [verrrry much dug the britches] to the new color-matching on the tech-fit jerseys and helmets, UT just looked plain awesome again under the bright lights. There were some kinks to be worked out with adidas, but I think Dooley got those straight ... and I'm praying he brings out orange pinstripes in Tuscaloosa.
- The Hogs Played Like Slop. We've discussed this over and over and over again here on RTT, but the UT offensive line was mediocre-to-flat-out-abysmal most of the night. I think Alex Bullard and James Stone would both tell you they struggled straight-up, but it's an old football adage that lines succeed and fail together, so they all got an F on Saturday. They faltered at the point of attack and did not finish blocks. These guys have all the talent in the world to be impact players. Play time is over. That's the last I'll say about the line this week; I think everybody knows I'm a tad disgusted.
- Ball Security. The Vols had six outright fumbles and two special teams gaffes that could have resulted in a change of possession for a grand total of eight miscues. Miraculously, they lost none of those. It was a night of luck in that regard, but it also had something to do with the competition. If the Vols have butterfingers like that anymore, they'll get their payday [see what I did there?] in the SEC -- or maybe against Cincinnati. It is essential that UT emphasizes ball security because it isn't good enough to turn the ball over and still win games. And what's up with Tauren Poole? So uncharacteristic of him to put two balls on the ground.
- The, Ahem, No. 1 Punter and Kicker in the Country. That's right, both Matt Darr and Michael Palardy were rated by at least one recruiting service as the top punter and kicker in the country a couple years ago. Though Palardy didn't have many kicking issues [besides a little inconsistency on the depth of his kickoffs] neither one punted worth a darn against Montana, and -- I've got news for those of you who didn't know... with our brand of offense, we'll be punting a good bit this year. Coming off the inconsistency of Chad Cunningham, it doesn't look like it's going to be better punting with the Darr-Palardy combo. Darr averaged 34 ypp on two boots. Palardy averaged 40.5 on his two, but that number is misleading because of a fortuitous bounce he got on a punt off the side of his foot. Not good, boys. Gotta get a lot better quickly.
- Anybody Catching the Football Not Named Da'Rick or Justin. We'll have much more on this later in the week, but where in the Hades was the third wide receiver? Maybe our offense was so bland in this game and ran so few sets that there simply wasn't a lot of meat left on the bone for Zach Rogers, DeAnthony Arnett, Vincent Dallas, Matt Milton, Anthony Anderson, etc. But starting tight end Mychal Rivera didn't even have a catch. All receivers other than Rogers and Hunter had a lone catch -- by Zach Rogers -- and he fumbled it. Again, I'm sure the vanilla had something to do with it, but that's a worrisome statistic to me. Somebody [or somebodies] has GOT to rise to the occasion.
- Getting the D Off the Field. Cincinnati runs a lot of horizontal routes out of the spread formation, which means we're probably in for another day of seeing bubble screens, short outs, etc., like we did against Montana. Thankfully, none of that speed option stuff should rear its head with the Bearcats, but the Vols have got to find a way to shut down the short stuff. The Grizz finished with 18 first downs and 346 total yards. Because Montana's offensive gameplan was set up to minimize pressure on its smallish quarterbacks, the Vols never broke through with a sack, meaning the Grizz was in manageable downs-and-distances much of the game. UT must make plays like it did in the second and third quarters against Montana to put Cincy in precarious positions and put themselves in a spot to get off the field better.