The Vols took a huge step up in quality of opponent this week, and a huge step down in result, losing 34-10 to Oklahoma in Norman. But how much was Tennessee really getting better or worse, and how much was just a different opponent? We try to figure it out in this week's trending report.
- Third down defense. Tennessee was very good at defending third downs in the first two games, allowing Utah State and Arkansas State to convert on just 22.6% of attempts. They were better on Saturday, getting almost the same results against a significantly superior offense. The Vols held Oklahoma to just 3 of 12 on third downs (and 0 of 1 on fourth downs) and now sit third in the country in third down defense, after finishing last season 91st. And that number would be even better if not for what looked for all the world like a missed fumble call by the replay official.
- The front seven. The defense allowed 450 yards, and the run defense did struggle at times. But they didn't struggle most of the time. Most of the time, the front seven looked like they belonged on the field with one of the biggest and most talented offensive lines in the country. The Vols did allow a long run to Oklahoma's third back, but they held the two-headed monster of Keith Ford and Alex Ross to just 62 yards on 20 carries--that's 3.1 yards per carry. That's good defense. A.J. Johnson and Jalen Reeves-Maybin continue to hit hard, and Derek Barnett has been outstanding in his first three games at the college level.
- Fighting in the fourth quarter. Last year's team wasn't long removed from the influence of Derek Dooley, whose teams tended to wilt in the second half against overmatched opponents. And last year's team played an alarming number of games that were not competitive at any point in the second half. The 34-10 score line might be reminiscent of some of those games, but the level of competition was not. The Vols outgained Oklahoma in the second half, and the second half wasn't played by backups. Twice in the last 17 minutes did Tennessee have the ball inside the OU 30 with a chance to cut the lead to 10. They didn't convert either time, but they moved the ball and earned their chances. Last year's team often did not.
- Jalen Hurd. 14 carries. 97 yards. As a true freshman against one of the best defensive fronts in the country. Sure, that's skewed somewhat by a couple big plays, but Hurd was also running behind a line that was being dominated for most of the game. His performance was impressive, and he is putting himself in the mix for the starting tailback position.
- Justin Worley's poise. Yes, Worley threw one bad interception in the fourth quarter. Yes, Worley's numbers were not very good. But he was playing in a hostile environment, and the Oklahoma defensive line was living in the backfield. Last year, Worley got rattled. Saturday, Worley was standing in the pocket and making the throws with more accuracy than he showed against the likes of Western Kentucky and South Alabama in 2013. He is not the most talented quarterback, but he has earned the respect of this offense, and he doesn't seem apt to collapse in the face of pressure.
- Receivers making plays. If Worley is trending up, why were his numbers so bad? Part of it has to do with the line problems, but he didn't get much help from his receivers in Norman. A lot of catchable balls fell to the turf, and the problem wasn't limited to one receiver, although Jason Croom's increased playing time after the Von Pearson injury didn't help matters. Croom dropped at least two passes, including one in the end zone that he dropped into the arms of a waiting defender. The Vols need a better performance against Georgia, and they will be doing it without Josh Smith, who left the game with a high ankle sprain. Hopefully Pearson, who also had a high ankle sprain a week earlier, will be back at full speed. And hopefully Josh Malone will step up and give Tennessee a game-breaking target opposite Marquez North.
- The offensive line. The rushing numbers against Oklahoma actually looked similar to the numbers against Arkansas State. Given the increase in quality of opponent, you could argue that the line took a step forward. So why are they in the "trending down" category? Because Oklahoma's defense was living in the backfield. Justin Worley was sacked five times, and had two more sacks called back for penalty. He was hit many more times than that. Coleman Thomas, a true freshman in his first start, was incapable of blocking an admittedly elite Eric Striker, and Mack Crowder struggled mightily in handling the crowd noise, relying on Marcus Jackson to physically tap him when Worley was ready for the snap. When you're playing an elite defensive front, giving away the snap count doesn't exactly help.
- Being in the right place. There weren't many busted plays by the defense against Oklahoma, but there were more than there were against Utah State and Arkansas State. LaDarrell McNeil still struggles to take the proper angle, and Oklahoma's first touchdown came when Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Todd Kelly Jr both blitzed, leaving the running back entirely uncovered. Most of the defensive play was encouraging, but there were some freshman moments.
- Kickoff return inefficiency. If you like, you may substitute a stronger word for "inefficiency." On three occasions Saturday did Devrin Young attempt to bring the ball out of the end zone on a kickoff. The results were as follows: Young fumbles, Tennessee recovers on own 16; Young returns to 20, return team is penalized, Tennessee starts on own 10; Young returns to 24. Three attempts, zero returns past the 25--where the ball would've been placed after a touchback. That's 8 yards per possession given up in exchange for a chance of breaking a big one. Given that in his career, Young has never scored a touchdown on a return and averages just 23 yards per return, that's a bad exchange and one the Vols should stop making.