This was Tennessee's first night at Fight Club. And the Vols fought, at times well and always hard. Oklahoma is a bigger, stronger, better opponent, and it showed. It showed in general, behind 454 yards of offense and a defensive front that I don't have a comparison to or a word for. Tennessee's offensive line was its greatest weakness coming in, Oklahoma's defensive front perhaps its greatest of many strengths. And the Sooners made you fear for the safety of Justin Worley.
In this, the Sooners' advantage also showed up in a couple of specific spots that kept the game just on the right side of comfortable for Oklahoma. Late in the third quarter the Vols were down 27-10 but driving, when Worley fired for Jason Croom in single coverage in the end zone. Croom had a chance to make the play, but sophomore star Zack Sanchez ended up with the ball in a key interception. On the next drive, early in the fourth quarter, Tennessee moved to 3rd and 2 at the Oklahoma 4, but a tipped ball on a good defensive play turned into a 100 yard pick six. They were big plays in timely moments, plays great teams make and Oklahoma made them.
Worley was sacked five times and hit countless others. He finished the night 21 of 44 for 201 yards, just 4.6 per attempt, with a touchdown to go with those two interceptions. It is a fantastic time for a bye week to get him and everyone else healed up again.
Oklahoma should have a chance to be as good as they want to be, especially if Trevor Knight plays the way he did in the first half tonight. His overall numbers were still great (20 of 33 for 308 with a touchdown and an interception) but in the first half he was championship good, his only incompletions a couple throwaways and a great cover by Todd Kelly. The Sooners deserve congrats, and we'll line it up and see how much progress we've made in 2015.
But for 2014, Tennessee also showed enough tonight to make you believe Team 118 is going to get in plenty of fights the rest of this season.
This wasn't Oregon or Alabama of previous years. The Vols didn't tap out, which sounds like something we should expect and not applaud until you consider the previous administration and the average age of this team. They didn't slow down despite constant physical abuse on the offensive end and a lot of snaps on the defensive end. They got beat by a better team, but the Vols made every drive meaningful and relevant until the final series, and without that pick six the final score would tell a much different story for those who will only check the box score.
The best news of the night: Tennessee's defense played at a level that suggests we're going to be talking about them all year.
Oklahoma still got 6.7 yards per play, but the Sooners were held to 3 of 12 on third down for what, which traveled exceptionally well. Tennessee's defense, like Kentucky's, is just noticeably faster and noticeably better than recent memory. Plays that would've gone for seven yards last year went for three. Young guys like Corey Vereen and Derek Barnett were factors in the backfield. I wanted to use the term "veterans" to describe Cameron Sutton and Jalen Reeves-Maybin but then I realized they too are still just sophomores. But those guys, along with A.J. Johnson, were strong throughout against an offense of even greater strength. Other facets of the team may not be good enough to win games like this right now. But the defense might be the first arrival; I know Todd Gurley is coming next, but in general I'm eager to see what this unit can do when facing an offensive line that isn't as good as the one we saw tonight.
With freshmen now with bruises and the experience that comes with them (and a week off to heal) and the defense looking reliable, the most important question for Tennessee's season becomes this: how soon can the offensive line improve? And are the answers on this roster, or coming next year?
If they stay healthy, you have to hope they can be better than what we saw tonight. I know, of course, it would be hard to be worse, but there's a difference between not getting Justin Worley killed and playing winning football. Jalen Hurd showed some flashes bolstered by a couple of big runs. Again, not everyone we face will be Oklahoma, even though in the SEC several others will be in the same conversation. But Tennessee has to get better up front if it wants to go from fighting to winning. I am confident we'll get it fixed. I just don't know if any of us know how much of that fixing will get done this season.
The Vols will rest, and then they'll go to Georgia. The Dawgs picked up an SEC loss today. South Carolina carries one from the season opener. Florida escaped one tonight but will be heavily favored to find it against the Crimson Tide next week. This division could get cannibalistic in a hurry.
I'm not here to suggest the Vols are going to win it. But after what we saw tonight, I am here to suggest the Vols are going to fight. Every week. After what we've been through, that's a welcome sight, bruises and all. And the more nights this young team spends under the lights trading blows with teams of Oklahoma's stature? The quicker we'll get there ourselves. Carrying the fight to your opponent and keeping it there for sixty minutes is the final maxim. The baby Vols passed that test tonight.