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Oklahoma 31 Tennessee 24 - Reconnecting the Dots

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Tennessee has solved much of its talent problem, but still has important lessons to learn.

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When Todd Kelly scored an interception on the game's opening drive, Neyland Stadium went to That Place.

The conversation on what's the loudest moment in Neyland history has no right answer.  There have been a handful of moments since expansion to six figures where it's gone to That Place, where all speech is unintelligible and the noise is like a living thing.  A pair of game-deciding kicks against Florida in 1998 and 2004.  Jay Graham breaking Bama hearts in 1996 and Travis Stephens the other direction on the same sideline just before the Hobnailed Boot.  Most recently it was the blocked punt in the Smokey greys two years ago.

I've been to almost every game in Neyland since 1988 and seen every big moment.  When Kelly made that pick, it was as loud as any of them.

So we went to That Place, and we came away with a 17-0 lead.  At halftime me and the guys in my section were talking about where we were at various important moments over the last 20 years, because you felt like you were sitting in one of them.

Lots of folks have done a great job talking about what came next.  Brent Hubbs pointed out Tennessee gained 172 yards at 5.7 yards per play in building the lead, 51 more on the first two plays of the second half, then 31 yards the rest of the night.  In doing so the Vols found the only way to lose to Oklahoma in double overtime and still make it feel like a low point.

I don't put much stock in that "Tennessee is 2-whatever against ranked teams since 2008" stat.  Other than Fulmer's last team and perhaps a couple of examples from 2012, the Vols lost those games mainly because of talent.  They were supposed to lose playing against a ranked team.  Last night was different in regards to talent, but similar on a much shorter timeline.

I_S pointed out the Vanderbilt loss from 2013, a third example of Butch Jones and the Vols coming up painfully short in a game with a lot on the line.  But the most painful and most recent counterpart is, of course, the other checker Neyland game.  (It's a great idea Spencer Barnett had, and beautifully executed twice.  And I think it needs to be locked away for a long, long time.  Put it with the first down celebration that never caught on last night because fans organically cheer loudly for first downs in the first place.)

Two different quarterbacks and two different offensive coordinators have gone into this prison, playing with two possession leads against two really good defenses.  (By the way, don't forget we were playing Oklahoma and not Vanderbilt or South Carolina or most of the other teams we've gone to the wire with recently.  Any of those teams would've deserved credit, but perhaps the Vols deserve a little more benefit of the doubt here.)  Both times the Vols not only failed to land knockout blows, but went backward.

Last year against Florida the Vols had seven snaps in the Gator red zone on three third quarter drives.  Their best result was zero yards in what became an interception and two field goals.  The mistakes were of greater quality against the Gators last year, but the quantity was staggering against the Sooners last night.  Four of Tennessee's first five second half drives ended this way:

  • 3Q 1st and 10 OU 24:  Hurd loss of six, two tough incompletions to Alex Ellis, missed field goal
  • 3Q 1st and 10 UT 44:  Incomplete, Kamara one yard, incomplete, punt
  • 3Q 1st and 10 OU 36:  Pearson run loss of three, Dobbs sacked loss of 12, incomplete, punt
  • 3Q/4Q 1st and 10 OU 29:  Hurd fumble -12, Dobbs run one yard, incomplete, punt
Knocking on the door of (at least) a field goal which would have put the Vols up three possessions, Tennessee's best results were a pair of one yard runs.  Say what you will about Butch today, but he's not wrong when he opened his postgame comments by talking about negative plays:  four of these dozen plays went backward for a staggering -33 yards.  Any one of those field goals would have been enough.  Any one of those drives could have ended it or perhaps even blown open the floodgates.  For the second year in a row, the Vols had 14 different ways to win the game in front of them, and somehow found the secret 15th option instead.

Even without the points on the board, the rapid sequence of punts left our defense in perfect position to show how depth can still be a factor, especially when playing without Curt Maggitt and Danny O'Brien.  Yes, they should have sacked Baker Mayfield any number of times.  Yes, they had some frustrating penalties.  But the first headline here is the offense's inability to create any forward progress when even a few yards could have made the difference.

How do you isolate the most pressing questions and find answers on offense?  Chris tackled some of those questions today; we shouldn't find any real answers against Western Carolina, but another good defense is lurking the following week.  Time will tell, but we won't have to wait all year for it.

The good news for those wondering if the Vols can bounce back is that they did exactly that last year.  The arrival of Josh Dobbs changed much of the narrative, and Tennessee's season wasn't defined by the crushing loss to Florida.  The Vols still created success for themselves, and there's every opportunity to do the same this year with conference play still a fortnight away.  But losses like this have a way of following coaches around until they can take that next step.  Tennessee came to Neyland Stadium last night with the opportunity to separate the past from the present.  Instead, experiencing such heartbreak causes fans to reconnect the dots.  That's how it will be until Tennessee can finish the job under Butch Jones in a game like this, either in the third quarter with more killer instinct, or being the team that makes those final few plays at the end.  The Vols have clearly solved much of their talent problem.  Learning how to finish a good team off is part of the next step.

One silver lining amidst the checkered pain on this Sunday?  Even with all the depth issues, the penalties, and the sheer volume of plays they faced, the Tennessee defense went from maligned to proud in a week, holding the Sooners to four yards per play.  And I could be talked into the idea they've already faced, in the first two weeks, the best quarterback and slipperiest quarterback they'll see in the regular season.