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Tennessee Vols Trending Report: Missouri

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Trending up: defense, special teams, and Jalen Hurd. But where is the offense going?

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

It was a good night for Tennessee in Columbia, as the Vols snapped a three-game losing streak to Missouri, downing the Tigers 19-8 in a game where Mizzou really never threatened. What went well to lift the Vols to a comfortable victory? And was there anything to be concerned about, even in a winning effort? The Trending Report is here to tell you.

TRENDING UP:

  • Arm's length separation. Tennessee never really broke through and dominated this game the way Vols fans might've hoped they would, but they also didn't let Missouri back into it. If that felt unfamiliar, there's a reason: this was Tennessee's first two-score contest of the season with a final margin of fewer than 24 points. Before this week, every game the Vols played was either a blowout or a nail-biter. But while the margin finished at an entirely ambiguous 11 points, it was clear throughout the game who was the better team. The Vols might not be good enough to consistently dominate the bottom half of the East, but they are clearly separating themselves, winning multiple conference contests by double digits for the first time in five years.
  • Special teams. Aaron Medley made four of five field goals, Trevor Daniel was again dominant after a few weeks of being merely good, Evan Berry had a big return, and Tennessee's kickoff coverage was overpowering. All of this (plus a pair of Mizzou turnovers) added up to field position edge of twenty(!) yards per possession. Over the course of the game, that's over 200 yards that Missouri's offense needed to traverse and that the Vols didn't. Add a great defensive performance (see: two bullet points down from here), and Tennessee perfectly followed the formula for shutting down a struggling offense.
  • Jalen Hurd: one man army. In the first half alone, Hurd ran for 108 yards, averaging 6.75 yards per carry and accounting for nearly half of Tennessee's total yardage and all three plays of 15+ yards. And he looked even more impressive to the eyes than he did on paper. Hurd broke tackles left and right and left the Missouri defenders lamenting a "very uncharacteristic" performance. Despite slower going in the second half, Hurd finished with a career high 151 yards on the ground.
  • Smothering defensive play. At the end of the third quarter, Missouri had 85 yards on 32 plays. That's 2.66 yards per play. Had the Tigers not gotten some offense in the fourth quarter after trailing 19-0, that number would have blown by their previous low, a 9-6 loss to Georgia in which they averaged 3.35 yards per play. But while their fourth quarter performance was enough for Missouri to eclipse their offensive nadir, this game was another data point in a consistent upward trend for the Tennessee defense. With the exception of a second half hiccup against South Carolina, the Vols' defense has been exemplary ever since the bye.
TRENDING DOWN:
  • Finishing drives. Seven scoring opportunities. Five trips inside the red zone. And Tennessee managed just 19 points, attempting five field goals (making four), punting once, and scoring just one touchdown. Missouri's defense has been good in the red zone all season, and field goals were enough to win the game, but the Vols offense still has a long way to go to bridge the gap between their 2.71 points per scoring opportunity and the national average of 4.74.
  • The rest of the offense. If you're a regular RTT reader, you've read a lot of good things about Tennessee's performance on the ground. And while Hurd's first half was undoubtedly a bright spot, a closer look reveals a Tennessee offense that struggled in a lot more ways than just finishing drives. Josh Dobbs' 3.71 yards per pass attempt was his worst mark since the offensive disaster that was the 2013 Vanderbilt game, and the Tennessee offense as a whole turned in their second-worst performance of the season as measured by yards per play, averaging just 4.43 for the game. Even in the first half, when Hurd seemed to be running wild, the Vols averaged less than the 4.97 yards per play (against Alabama) that represented their previous second worst, and less than 4.00 yards per play on anything that wasn't a Hurd carry. And they didn't make up for it in efficiency, with a success rate of just 32% for the game, well below the national average of 42%. Even Hurd's first half was below average from an efficiency standpoint--he made up for it with explosion, but just six of his sixteen first half carries were successful. And in the second half, when Missouri bottled up Hurd to the tune of 43 yards on 18 carries (2.39 yards per carry), the rest of the offense had no answer, finishing the half with a Missouri-like 3.52 yards per play and scoring just three points. The Vols ultimately didn't need a good offensive performance in order to win, but the offense is trending hard in the wrong direction. Their yards per play in their last five halves of football: 4.44, 5.67, 4.48, 4.90, 3.52. All five are worse than what the Vols got against both Georgia and Florida, and four of the five are worse than against Alabama. Tennessee has another chance to pull out of their offensive slide next week against a stingy Vanderbilt D that has allowed just three touchdown drives of more than 40 yards in their last five games, but their play of late has been a red flag after an overall strong first two months of the season.
  • The SEC East. South Carolina choked on its cupcake, losing 23-22 to The Citadel, and Florida and Georgia both needed overtime to put away inferior in-state foes. Even with the offense trending down, Tennessee has looked like the best team in the SEC East the last three weeks, and every uninspiring game from Florida makes the Vols' failure in Gainesville loom larger in hindsight. Every team of consequence expects to be much improved next season, and it will be up to Tennessee to take a big enough step forward to leave no doubt in what should be a bigger challenge.