This morning after church someone asked me to describe yesterday's game in one word. I chose "inferno". It describes the large and dangerous fire that is Oregon's offense, and it also describes the place the Vols should deposit the game film.
What is there to learn from a 45 point disaster, the most lopsided defeat of the modern era, against the number two team in the nation?
Here's my hope: Oregon presents not only the most significant (non-Alabama division) but also the most unique challenge of the season. Many of us before the game thought victory was actually less likely against the Ducks than the Tide for this reason. So when, after a brief period of hope, Oregon's offense unleashed every bit of the hell we thought they'd bring to the table, how strong should our reaction be?
A fourth of the way through the regular season, I still feel like we have very little actual information on this team. We've played an FCS opponent, a team that turned it over four times in four plays for the first time in the history of college football, and a team that gave us our worst beating since 1910. What can this team do in a normal game?
Same as last week, here's the truth we're trying to see in the ashes of the film:
The Run Game: Fine, but fine won't cut it
Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane combined for 105 yards on 25 carries, 4.2 per. That's okay, especially considering we're playing the number two team in the country, but because the number two team in the country was Oregon, not being better on the ground put the Vols in down-and-distance situations that were just a little more than what we wanted. How did Oregon put up 59 points? In part because we kept putting them back on the field. Consider the following sequence of events late in the first quarter and early in the second when the game was still competitive:
VOLS LEAD 7-3
- Rajion Neal run 2 yds
- Rajion Neal run 4 yds
- Justin Worley incomplete, punt
- Oregon TD
OREGON LEADS 10-7
- Justin Worley 4 yd pass to Rajion Neal
- Marlin Lane run 1 yd
- Marlin Lane run 4 yds (the close spot), punt
- Oregon TD
Things spiraled from there, but those were two drives when the Vols were very much in the game when the run game failed to convert a much-needed first down. The first time they left Worley in 3rd and 5, the second time they came up juuuuuuuust short on a first down. There was, as we witnessed, no margin for error against Oregon, and we lost the ability to be competitive.
We don't anticipate being in the sort of game where we have to score on every possession again the rest of the year, but Tennessee has to be able to move the chains on the ground and not put Justin Worley in bad situations. If this offense's identity isn't a power running game behind this offensive line, what else will it be?
Will the defense be any better against SEC competition than last year?
Again, Oregon is unique. Have we seen anything good from this defense that might be helpful when we're not playing the Ducks?
For much of the first half the Vols seemed to be in the right place to make a play, but didn't. Some of this is just flat out credit to Oregon, especially Marcus Mariota
. It's hard to notice any difference when the Ducks are unleashing huge plays left and right; Tennessee has now allowed 10 plays of 30+ yards this season, good for 115th nationally. It was this stat that ruined the Vols last season, when the Vols allowed 36 of those plays.
Obviously if wide receivers run free and big plays come in bunches all season, we'll see no improvement. Tennessee is also now extraordinarily thin at defensive tackle without Maurice Couch
and perhaps Trevarris Saulsberry
. And the Vols remain extraordinarily young at corner.
We have seen a few signs of life even outside the seven turnover weirdness from last week. The Vols have already recorded six sacks; a two-per-game pace would give the Vols more in the regular season than they've had in the last eight years. And though Oregon did score five times in the red zone, the Vols still held them out of the end zone twice in the game's early stages. At 7-3 Vols, Tennessee had allowed ten red zone visits and had given up a touchdown just twice. For the year Tennessee has still allowed touchdowns less often than not, 7 touchdowns in 15 trips for 26th nationally at 46.6%. This bending without breaking will help us immensely down the road if we can maintain it.
I'm sure we're not as bad as last year, since that defense was the worst in school history. Is there still reason to believe we can be noticeably better defensively? Maybe. As in many things, next week will be very telling.
The Continuing Ballad of Justin Worley
Young Worley in three games: 35 of 57 (61.4%), 372 yards, 5 TD, 1 INT. Worley averages 6.5 yards per attempt, dead last in the SEC. He averages 19 attempts per game, next to last in the SEC behind only the Arkansas passing game, though Worley didn't play an entire half in the opener.
Here's the thing: if the number one desired quality for Team 117's starting quarterback is knowing the offense and taking care of the football, Worley is doing that. He has one interception in three games and hasn't made many bad decisions.
But against Oregon, that was never going to be anywhere near enough. So Saturday is a very big day for Justin Worley, because can it be enough against one of our big conference foes? Florida won't score 59 points, I'm pretty sure. Can mistake-free game management be enough to help the Vols beat the Gators?
The run game will have to be more than fine, but Worley has to be good enough to move the chains. He threw a beautiful touchdown pass on 3rd and 4. But he also fired incomplete on 3rd and 4 in the first quarter, then had three straight incompletions from 1st and 10 at the Oregon 45 with the Vols down 17-7. And in this game, that was all she wrote.
He also wasn't asked to throw deep much in this one, other than the big play to Josh Smith early. He missed a post route that was there, fired a couple others out of bounds, but otherwise the playbook didn't call for much downfield. Will it in other games?
I'm not in favor of making big decisions based on what the #2 team in the country does to a young team on the road. But if Worley is ineffective moving the football at Florida (another good defense)? With South Alabama on the horizon, many will definitely be in favor of burning a redshirt or two. And it may be awfully hard to convince them otherwise.
Tennessee has to run better than decently well and can't get behind the chains so often. But Worley has to make more throws for Tennessee to sustain drives and keep the defense off the field. Does Worley - mistake free, wise decisions, limited arm, shaky accuracy - give this team the best chance to win games it should have an opportunity in? We're about to find out.
We said we wanted to go to Florida feeling like we had a chance to win. After that fire, I think we're all a little numb. So it's a big coaching moment for Butch Jones, trying to rally a team that just got blown out, again, and get them ready to go in a game that certainly seemed winnable a week ago, but now will require something more from all involved in the program. If the Vols get blitzed again, it won't be the end of anything, but will almost certainly mean some changes and our depressing, "We'll see you in November," stance from the last three years will return, since things get no easier between now and then. But if the Vols can show signs of life against the Gators, we can call it progress at this point. I'm really curious to see what Butch and his staff can get out of this team and this opportunity on Saturday.
And who knows? Maybe the game is still winnable after all. For now the Vols need to leave the Oregon game in the fire, and move forward to the hard work of creating their own spark.