After a pair of exemplary offensive performances, Tennessee had high hopes going into the Missouri game Saturday night. Yes, the Tigers defense was a major step up in class, but having Josh Dobbs at quarterback had been a revelation for the Vols, and they were confident that they could ride the newfound offense to bowl eligibility. It was not to be this weekend, as Tennessee fell 29-21. What got worse? Did anything get better? We find out in this week's trending report.
- Matt Darr. The Vols didn't have their best performance on senior night, but one Tennessee senior had an exemplary performance. Matt Darr punted six times and pinned Missouri inside the ten on four of those six. Granted, a couple of those were aided by Tigers penalties, but he was still getting punts inside the 20 with good hangtime, and one punt in the first quarter was downed at the one. Tennessee needed every special teams advantage they could get, and Darr gave them a huge edge in the field position battle.
- Sneaky special teams. There are very few areas in which the last Tennessee administration was superior to this one, but sneaking up on opponents on special teams was one of those areas. To date, Butch Jones has not been able to match the success Derek Dooley had with fake punts and surprise onside kicks. But he dialed up the best play of the ball game Saturday night on a fake field goal, where walk-on holder Patrick Ashford delivered a 31-yard strike to walk-on tight end Alex Ellis to give Tennessee their only lead of the night.
- Making up for the offensive line. Against Alabama, South Carolina, and Kentucky, Josh Dobbs took a total of two sacks. He averaged 96 yards per game on the ground and ran for four touchdowns. Against Missouri, Dobbs was sacked six times, had a net of 13 yards rushing, and only found the end zone on a two-point conversion. The offensive line didn't become good in the last three games, but Dobbs' scrambling ability kept defenses from taking advantage of a matchup that has been in the defense's favor pretty much every game this season. But Mizzou pressed that advantage to the fullest, and Tennessee's offense regressed to pre-Dobbs levels. And this isn't an indictment of Dobbs--he can only do so much. But the offensive line is the limiting factor to the Tennessee team moving forward. If they can't take a major step in 2015, the Vols will struggle to score--especially in the red zone--against every good defense on their schedule (except for Georgia for some reason).
- Defending passing downs. We can put it in advanced stats terms or layman's terms, and it looks the same. From Bill C's preview of the Mizzou game for Rock M Nation, Tennessee's defense was 4th in the country on passing downs in IsoPPP, allowing .89 IsoPPP. That is a measure of explosiveness by opposing offenses when they are successful. Tennessee has been really good at preventing that explosiveness on passing downs. This week? Mizzou averaged 1.83 IsoPPP on passing downs, over 160% of the national average and more than twice Tennessee's defensive average. Looking more at traditional stats, Missouri faced 16 third downs of 5 yards or more. They converted nine of them (two by penalty, the other seven with offense). Two of those conversions went for touchdowns, one a 73-yard touchdown. Tennessee did a solid job of putting the Missouri offense in bad situations, but they consistently let the Tigers out again, which is uncharacteristic of the 2014 defense and went a long way towards giving Missouri a victory.
- Mistake-free football. Two penalties on third down to extend a Mizzou drive. Two penalties that negated successful onside kick recoveries. Two turnovers. Four dropped passes in the fourth quarter alone. To beat a top 25 team, you need to play a clean game, and Tennessee did everything but on Saturday, turning in one of their sloppiest performances of the season.
- Mental toughness at home. (see also: Dooleying) Tennessee has been really good this season at responding to adversity on the road, with Georgia and South Carolina serving as prime examples. The Vols did a solid job at the same thing at home against the Dawgs and Cocks last season. But this season, Tennessee has struggled mentally in front of their home crowd. Against Florida, Justin Worley fumbled with Tennessee up 9-0, and the defense promptly turned in their two worst series of the game on their way to a 10-9 loss. And Saturday, Josh Malone dropped a pass into a defender's waiting arms with the Vols down just 16-13, and Tennessee responded with six minutes of total collapse. In the next 12 plays, Mizzou outgained Tennessee 141-2 and outscored the Vols 13-0. The game was within reach when the turnover happened, and it was well out of reach when Tennessee got back into the game mentally. This was a consistent issue under the previous administration, and while Jones has largely rectified it during his tenure, there have been a couple hints this season that need to be quickly erased as the Vols move forward. The most embarrassing example of losing mentality under Dooley came in a situation eerily similar to what Tennessee faces this Saturday, so the Vols can take another step towards rectifying it by taking control early and winning handily against Vanderbilt.
- Finishing drives. This has been an issue all season, and will be an issue for as long as Tennessee's offensive line is an issue. The Vols can move the ball sometimes, but when they get into scoring positions, the field gets smaller, and Tennessee runs into trouble. Their 4.4 points per possession inside the opponent's 40 prior to this week ranked just 75th in the country. Against Missouri, Tennessee lowered that average, scoring just 21 points on seven(!) trips inside the Missouri 40. In six attempts against non-prevent defenses, Tennessee's offense found the end zone zero times, with their only touchdown coming from the special teams unit. The abysmal performance in scoring position is in keeping with the rest of Tennessee's season (even the Dobbs part--the Vols had four empty trips inside the 30 in Columbia), but it desperately needs improvement.
- Timeout management. Tennessee has played four one-possession games this season. In three of them, the Vols have wasted timeouts for reasons ranging from extremely questionable to extremely stupid. In the other, the Vols were able to conserve enough time for a game-tying final drive. This is not a coincidence. This week, confusion on the sideline led to the Vols wasting either 20 seconds or a timeout on their final drive, and Jones spent a timeout that would've gotten Tennessee one last-ditch possession on a challenge that he had no realistic chance of winning. This is the third time we've said this, but the point remains: if Butch Jones is serious about learning from his mistakes, he needs to find someone to manage his timeout usage. So far, he hasn't.