For most of Tennessee's season opener Saturday night, I kept staring at the opposing line of scrimmage, rubbing my eyes and looking for Alabama, Florida or even North Carolina jerseys.
Nope. Montana. ...
... A FCS opponent that, no matter how much we want to paint as being a Big Sky defensive stalwart and national power on a lower level, isn't anywhere near SEC-caliber anywhere on the field.
Even so, UT's running game sputtered all night and, other than one moderately-long Tauren Poole scramble, never got on track. The Vols' struggles to run the football Saturday night in a 42-16 win over the undermanned Grizzlies is no reason to panic. But it is the chief reason why none of us can feel truly comfortable with a scoreboard-snazzy win that fell way short on style points.
At the end of the night, the Vols are 1-0, and it's hard to not be excited that football season is here and this team looks like it potentially has some firepower. This was the perfect game for coaches because the team won by enough to keep the fans happy, yet there is more than enough ammunition for Derek Dooley to pelt his team with heading into Cincinnati week -- things like eight fumbles [none lost], two penalty-erased Tyler Bray interceptions, a botched coverage that resulted in an 80-yard touchdown, too many penalty yards, 346 Montana yards allowed, etc.
But perhaps the biggest teaching point will be in the offensive line film room. Tennessee wound up with just 128 yards on a whopping 46 carries [counting sacks] for a 2.8 ypc average. Translation: That's 2010 bad. And, quite honestly, there's no excuse for it and plenty of blame to spread around.
Maybe I have higher expectations for a senior than most, but I was very disappointed in Tauren Poole again tonight. There were at least three plays in the first half where Poole flat-out missed a gaping hole, and at least two of them would have gone for big gains. His vision is lacking, and with a true freshman as talented as Marlin Lane breathing down his shoulder-pads collar, Poole has to find a way to speed things up physically while slowing it down mentally on the field sooner rather than later.
While Poole finished with 98 yards on 24 carries, he had the big 29-yard burst late that really boosted his otherwise-pedestrian numbers. He also fumbled twice, which is highly uncharacteristic. Dooley admitted after the game that the Vols haven't had enough wet-ball work this offseason, and it really showed. Even without the frustrating fumbles, it's maddening that the Vols never really were able to lean on pounding the football, whether it was first-and-10 or third-and-1.
With that said, for all the flak I give Poole for not being dynamic enough, he is what he is. We know what we're going to get from him, and we know it's never going to be more than what he's given [and in some cases like those squandered opportunities in the first half, he's going to give you less...] But the fact of the matter is he wasn't given much against Montana.
The Vols were flat-out whipped at the offensive point of attack. I thought the Grizz got too much pressure on Bray in their blitz packages, I thought they lined up in several formations that confused the Vols' offensive line, and, most alarmingly, I think they were the ones who got the aggressive push all night. As a friend of mine pointed out, that doesn't bode well for SEC play. And it may not bode well against a Cincinnati team that returned basically everybody from its bad but experienced defense last year.
I didn't count the times that Poole disappeared into a pack of Grizzlies defenders less than 2 yards from the line of scrimmage, but it was enough that I unleashed several unsavory words at my television. As the poster-child play of the night -- even though it was in garbage time -- freshman Tom Smith was stood up at the goal line on fourth-and-goal in the fourth quarter to just double up on the bile already in my mouth.
Maybe it's the former offensive lineman in me, but I am hard on those guys because I expect so much. They showed me nothing Saturday. Absolutely zilch. For all the lip service we've heard this preseason about how talented they are and how high the ceiling is for the four sophomores and junior, the O-linemen have a long way to go in a short time. Season is here guys. Time to step up. OL coach Harry Hiestand will probably just run down to the Krystal on the Strip tonight, grab a No. 1 combo and head back to camp out in the film room for the next few days. He certainly needs to.
The good news about this is I can choose to type it all with a smile on my face and a mark in the win column. Nothing that happened on Shields-Watkins Field tonight cost us anything but a couple of UT offensive lineman tail-chewing sessions. A win was never in question. I fully trust Hiestand, who has one of the best reputations of any assistant coaches in college football, to address this sub-par performance and have the Vols front performing at a higher level against a better opponent next week. When you run a vanilla, base offense with little variation in sets as the Vols did on Saturday, I'm sure it was a little more predictable what was coming than was noticeable to the layman's eye. On one hand, that's just brute Here's-What-We're-Running-And-See-If-You-Can-Stop-Us, Man-On-Man football. On the other, it's a whole dang lot easier to defend.
So, we'll just hope that had something to do with it tonight, that Montana loaded the box to stop the run and picked its method of demise [death-by-Bray and his 17-of-24 passing, three-touchdown performance]. We'll have to be content with the fact that whatever isn't acceptable to us as fans is probably even more unacceptable to coaches. And we'll look forward to seeing a more spirited effort from a talented-but-still-inexperienced group of offensive linemen and running backs against the Bearcats next week.
It certainly needs to be better. Things get much more difficult real quickly.