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Can Tennessee's Passing Game Be Successful Against Florida's Defense?

Quarterback, receivers, line, and play caller will all need to be sharp for Tennessee to make the handful of plays they'll need in the passing game to best a strong Gator defense.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Let's start by defining success. Josh Dobbs is unlikely to throw for 300 yards against the Gators, and Tennessee is unlikely to chuck it 40 times.  This is, after all, the week of weeks for winning the rushing battle if history still holds.  But to win the game, Tennessee is going to have to make some throws against a talented Florida secondary.  The Gators should be capable of slowing Jalen Hurd (10 carries, 39 yards vs Florida last year) and Alvin Kamara enough to make Tennessee beat them here and there through the air.  This won't be the first or last time this season a strong defense puts it on the Vol passing game in critical situations.  We shouldn't need it in abundance, but we will need to create honesty from the Gator defense.  Whether it's over the top with the elusive deep ball or making a throw on 3rd and 6, Tennessee is going to have to make plays in the passing game to leave Gainesville victorious.

One of the questions I've been asking here and there since Oklahoma is to assign a percentage of responsibility for the struggles in the passing game.  Between Dobbs, wide receivers not getting separation/making plays, pass protection, and play calling, how should we best understand Tennessee's struggles through the air? It was a specific problem against the Sooners, but has had a tendency to show up in lesser fashion against better defenses in general.  What has been the biggest cause for concern in the passing game, and how might the Vols find solutions against Florida?  Let's look at each of these components individually.

Josh Dobbs

We know Dobbs can rip through a bad defense, as demonstrated against South Carolina & Kentucky last year and Bowling Green in week one this fall.  When faced with a stiffer challenge, Dobbs' stat sheet looks consistent:  respectable completion percentage in taking the underneath stuff, lower yards per attempt in failing to hit the big plays downfield:

2013 Missouri 26 42 61.9 240 5.7 0 2 L 31-3
2013 Auburn 16 25 64.0 128 5.1 0 1 L 55-23
2013 Vanderbilt 11 19 57.9 53 2.8 0 2 L 14-10
2014 Alabama 19 32 59.4 192 6.0 2 1 L 34-20
2014 Missouri 24 37 64.9 195 5.3 1 1 L 29-21
2014 Iowa 16 21 76.2 129 6.1 1 1 W 45-28
2015 Oklahoma 13 31 41.9 125 4.0 1 1 L 31-24

(By the way, the Vols have played so many tough games while trying to rebuild you can almost underrate their strength of schedule at this point.  In 2013 Tennessee played eventual #4 South Carolina (and won), #7 Alabama, #5 Missouri, and #2 Auburn on four consecutive Saturdays, the latter half being the first two starts for true freshman Josh Dobbs.  It's laughable in hindsight.)

We've seen Dobbs' completion percentage go to opposite extremes the last two times he faced a good defense, but he generally lands between 58-65% of his passes against good teams.  His decision making has improved as he's matured.  But his yards per attempt never spike higher than just over six against good teams; again, it's been a lot of taking the underneath stuff and trying to let players make plays.  But as Butch Jones is fond of saying, all these things work together with all 11 players in the passing game.  And identifying players who can consistently make plays has been a challenge.

Wide Receivers

Quick, who leads Tennessee in receiving yards?

It's Preston Williams, a true freshman who was held out while an ACT score was resolved and didn't make his first catch until Saturday against Western Carolina.  He was the beneficiary of a number of deep balls against the Catamounts, and the Vols tried to throw a couple his way against Bowling Green.  Perhaps he'll emerge as Tennessee's downfield specialist, but it's still early.

Williams leads the Vols in yards despite having only three catches, all in one game.  Before last week Jauan Jennings led the Vols in yards, another true freshman who came into fall camp as a quarterback.

We have seen Josh Malone establish himself, with nine catches for 92 yards and a big touchdown against Oklahoma.  Josh Smith's return has also been noticeable.  But the guys who were believed to be Tennessee's most reliable targets have been conspicuous by their absence.  Marquez North may or may not be 100%; he has four catches in three games.  Pig Howard, by far the Vols' most consistent receiver coming into the year and a favorite target of Dobbs in the past, was suspended for Bowling Green and has one catch for eight yards.

It's never really been clear if Butch's system prefers or even enables one or two guys to separate themselves as true one and two options.  But Tennessee will need some or all of these guys to make plays against what could be the best secondary they will face all year.

Pass Protection

Tennessee has given up six sacks in three games, an improvement on the 3.3 sacks we were giving up each game last fall.  Some of this is a credit to Josh Dobbs and his ability to make plays with his feet, but the Vols clearly struggled with Oklahoma's blitz in the second half and were faced with lots of third and long without ample time to get the ball downfield.

Only 11 teams have recorded 11+ sacks so far this fall, and one of them is Florida.  What's most impressive is what they did to Kentucky, scoring six of their 11 sacks against the Wildcats.  Here's the difference between playing a bad defense and playing Florida:  Patrick Towles was 21 of 29 for 192 yards against South Carolina in a Kentucky road win.  He was 8 of 24 for 126 yards and two interceptions against Kentucky.  Being above average against South Carolina translated to eight completions and six sacks against Florida.  Dobbs is better than Towles and has been far beyond average against teams like the Gamecocks.  What he can do in his first shot at the Gators will have much to do with how well the line can give him a chance.

Last year offensive line was Tennessee's most specific problem.  They are certainly a piece of this puzzle so far this year.  How many freshmen will the Vols elect to put in the rotation on Saturday?  How long can the pocket hold?  How often will negative yardage plays hurt Tennessee the way they did against Oklahoma?  This is a huge test for a line still looking to redeem itself.

Play Calling

Of course, there are ways to protect Dobbs and the line here.  I'm really interested to see how often Tennessee elects to roll their quarterback out, where he has often been at his best, and how often they leave him back there (and how down and distance dictates this).

It's oversimplification for fans to say, "Throw it deep, old man!"  But through three games and a pair of really bad defenses, Tennessee is 97th nationally in pass plays of 10+ yards with 20, and 91st in pass plays of 20+ yards with just seven.  Again, some of this is certainly mistakes and negative yardage plays in both the run and pass game on first down, especially against Oklahoma.  It's much harder to throw downfield when you have to and even harder to do so against the Sooners and Gators.

It's also oversimplification to say passive play with the lead has always been the thorn in Tennessee's side under Butch Jones.  The two plays that still stand out to me the most from last year's Florida loss were Justin Worley's two interceptions, one in the end zone in the third quarter and one on the game's final drive when the Vols only needed field goal range.  Both of those throws came on first down, aggressive calls and throws when Tennessee could have lived to play another down.  That was a different quarterback and a different coordinator, but there's an argument between those two plays and Worley's blindside fumble that started Florida's rally, the Vols could have won last year's Florida game 9-0 or 9-whatever by playing even more conservative with the lead.

The moments are different and we still probably don't have enough data for a reliable opinion, especially on Mike DeBord.  But I'd be more interested in seeing the Vols call a smarter game than an outright more aggressive game.  I don't know if this is the Saturday to get in that business, especially with a Florida offense that should be limited by Tennessee's defense.

So yes, the Vols need more big plays in the passing game.  They need to call a better game (and execute a better game, especially on first down) with a lead in the second half.  But you can't get overly aggressive; aggression for aggression's sake is a bad idea against this team.  For what it's worth, since SEC East inception in 1992 every Tennessee team that has gone that route against Florida has lost other than the 2004 Vols, who got uncanny freshman play from Erik Ainge the last time we beat the Gators.  Peyton Manning went 0-4, David Cutcliffe went 1-7.  When Tennessee has beaten Florida, it has done so with defense, pounding the rock, and quarterbacks making one or two big throws.  Heath Shuler to Mose Phillips in 1992.  Tee Martin to Peerless Price in 1998.  Casey Clausen to James Banks in 2003.  Travis Stephens and the offensive line were so unbelievably good in 2001 it wasn't even necessary.

Tennessee doesn't need Josh Dobbs to go off.  It doesn't need an absurdly aggressive gameplan.  Honestly, you'd take some of the numbers East Carolina got against these guys:  63.8% completion percentage, 6.0 yards per attempt, 3-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio.  These are numbers within everyone's realm of possibility this week.

The Vols can put themselves in position to win with Jalen Hurd and defense.  It will need Dobbs to make those small handful of plays to a small handful of receivers.  It will need the offensive line to allow just enough time for that to happen.  And it will need its offensive coordinator to call a smart, appropriately aggressive game both early and, hopefully, with Tennessee in front in the second half.

Butch Jones would likely say the responsibility here is split 25/25/25/25.  However you see it, the Vols will need something from all involved to make enough plays in the passing game against a great Gator defense to put this streak behind us and the chance for a great season in front of us.