What a comeback! South Carolina of 2014 may not be South Carolina of 2013, but after a dramatic 23-21 win last season, the Vols turned the drama to 11 this year, overcoming a 42-28 deficit in the last five minutes and pulling off a wild 45-42 win in overtime. Vols fans were understandably ecstatic in the immediate aftermath, but now that we've had 48 hours to settle down, it's time for the Trending Report to try to take a more objective look and figure out where Tennessee is getting better and where there are causes for concern.
Josh Dobbs' offense. There have been many opportunities to be critical of offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian this season, and there were opportunities to criticize in this game as well. But when you roll up 645 yards of offense (635 in regulation), you're doing something right. The Tennessee coaching staff had struggled for much of the season to scheme around abysmal offensive line play and to adapt the offense to a decidedly un-mobile Justin Worley. But when Dobbs comes in, it suddenly looks like there's a plan, and that it's a really good plan. When you roll up 635 yards of offense, you're doing something right.
Admittedly, South Carolina's defense is far from elite, coming in 122nd nationally with 6.56 yards allowed per play. But Tennessee's offense came in averaging just 4.10 yards per play (which would currently be 126th in the country), and with Dobbs in the game, the Vols looked dangerous. The offensive line looked better than they have all season, the running backs had more space, the receivers had more space. Tennessee exceeded South Carolina's average, running up 6.79 per play, and they genuinely looked good doing it. It's amazing what a change at quarterback will do.
- Josh Dobbs himself. His skill set may have been a huge impact on the offense, but Tennessee's breakout performance wasn't just about scheme. It had a whole lot to do with Josh Dobbs playing a brilliant football game. He threw for over 300 yards, averaging 7.5 yards per attempt, and ran for 166, averaging 6.9 per carry. He accounted for five touchdowns, with two through the air and three on the ground. He did have one notable bad decision, leading to an interception that he'd like to have back, but by and large, Dobbs was making good decisions, evading tacklers, and putting his passes on the money. And in crunch time, he was at his best, going 10/15 through the air--for 132 yards and a touchdown--on the last two drives, while adding 30 yards and another touchdown on four carries. Even adjusting for quality of defense, this is one of the all-time great quarterback performances from a school that has produced some fantastic quarterbacks. One performance does not a career make, but one performance like this will sure get you recognized.
- Jalen Hurd. Maybe he wasn't Dobbs, but Hurd deserves his own entry as well, showing the rare combination of size and speed that made him one of the top running back prospects in the 2014 class. Hurd ran for 125 yards--6.0 per carry--against South Carolina, added 58 yards and a touchdown on seven catches, and looked throughout the game like an emerging star.
- Overcoming the loss of your weapons. Coming into the game, if you asked any Tennessee fan who the best player on offense was, they would say Marquez North--the hero of the 2013 win over the Gamecocks. But North was held without a catch and missed the second half with injury, and the much-maligned Vols offense didn't miss a beat. Dobbs and Hurd were fantastic, Tennessee picked up another 138 all-purpose yards and a touchdown from Pig Howard, and eight different Vols caught passes on their way to 42 regulation points.
- Derek Barnett. There wasn't a lot of good to say about the defense Saturday, but when a true freshman gets three sacks--tying his own Tennessee record for most sacks in a game by a freshman--that deserves some recognition.
Making the plays to win. Coming into South Carolina, Butch Jones has had two "Most Important Game[s] of His Tenure So Far." Both games featured miserable offenses, blown leads, and ultimately home losses to division rivals. And in three close games against superior teams, the Vols had gotten over the hump once, in a game last October that felt farther away with every new loss. Clearly, the Vols were improving as the staff brought in more talent, and their overall competitive spirit was a quantum leap above the 2012 team, but their performance in crunch time seemed stagnant.
Not so on Saturday. When the game looked out of reach, Josh Dobbs delivered everything the Vols' offense needed--not just enough to make it look competitive, but enough to win. And a defense that had played their worst game of the season (by far) sacked Dylan Thompson three times on their last four meaningful snaps. And so a team that has known how to come heartbreakingly close now knows they can win. It remains to be seen how that affects them moving forward, but it can only be good.
- Staying until 0:00. If you are the type that turns off a game when hope looks lost, you missed a fantastic finish. Whether at the game or watching at home, watching until the bitter end can make for some unpleasant times (I say this as someone who was at '10 Oregon, '11 LSU, '12 Florida, and '12 Alabama), but on days like Saturday, it delivers incredible rewards.
- Covering the slot. Pharoh Cooper kept lining up in the slot, and Tennessee kept being unable to cover him. Nickel Justin Coleman has had so many frustrating moments in his Tennessee career, and he keeps battling back. I would love to say that he was rewarded with a game-changing performance for the boys in orange, but despite a first half interception, that wasn't his story against South Carolina. Cooper caught 11 passes for 233 yards, including an 85-yard touchdown that looked like the back-breaker in the fourth quarter. Coleman was losing the matchup, and coordinator John Jancek was unable to create a better matchup. The Vols have recruited a host of talent in the secondary under Butch Jones, and they need it to step up in a big way in 2015 if the Vols don't want a repeat of this performance when the Gamecocks come to Knoxville.
- Actually, covering everything. Cooper went off. Brandon Wilds had 173 yards on just 10 touches. South Carolina had repeated success running the speed option with a quarterback who keeps less often than Justin Worley. Friendly Gamecocks fans have tried to console the UT faithful by pointing out that South Carolina's offense is very good, and they aren't wrong. But it isn't as good as UT made it look. Whether you go by scoring offense or yards-per-play, South Carolina is the third best offense Tennessee has faced this season. The Vols held Georgia to 28 points and 5.59 yards per play (the Dawgs average 40.5 and 6.52). They were quite a bit worse against Alabama, giving up 34 points and 7.22 yards per play (the Tide average 36.5 and 6.96). The Gamecocks racked up 42 points and a jaw-dropping 8.56 yards per play, blowing away their season averages. That's better than they had against Auburn. Better than they had against Kentucky. Better than they had against Furman.
Great finish aside, there is no world in which this is an acceptable performance by the defense. After a very strong start to the season, John Jancek has been outcoached two weeks in a row, and he has two weeks to learn from his mistakes and put a competent defense on the field. The opponent quality will drop, which will help. And the bye week should help a defense that has struggled with depth all season. But a good opponent and a lack of depth don't excuse this week, and Jancek's bunch has to be better going forward.
- Finishing drives. It's hard to complain about an offense that puts up 635 yards and 42 points in regulation, but there were remarkably many missed opportunities against South Carolina. The Vols had four--four!--trips inside the South Carolina 30 that resulted in no points. Four! The culprit was different each time. On the first trip, predictable play-calling and a poor line did Tennessee in. The second empty trip was the result of a poorly executed second down pass and a missed field goal. On trip #3, a horrendously bad decision by Marlin Lane on second down and no line push on third down put the Vols in a fourth and one, where an even worse decision by the coaching staff and another missed field goal left even more points on the table. And the last time it was a bad decision by Josh Dobbs that ended the Tennessee drive. Make no mistake, 42 points in regulation is a good offensive performance. But that 42 could've easily been closer to 60 if the players and coaches had done a better job of delivering on promising drives.
- Making breaks in the kicking game. Two of Matt Darr's three punts went for 25 yards or fewer, and two of Aaron Medley's three kicks missed the target. Both have had some good games in orange this season, but they had their share of struggles this week.
- Short yardage offense. The offensive line looked better Saturday than they had all season, but they still struggled mightily in short yardage situations. Jalen Hurd carried four times with one yard to make, and on three of those plays, he was met at the line of scrimmage by a swarm of black jerseys. Tennessee scored a touchdown by running wide with Pig Howard, and having a running quarterback paid off on a few short yardage plays, but when Tennessee tried to line up and run over the defense--even a bad defense like South Carolina's--they got nothing.