Tennessee overcame sloppy play on both sides of the ball Saturday afternoon in Knoxville to hold off the Ohio Bobcats 28-19. All the storylines we've seen for two weeks continued into the Vols' third game, with an offense that continues to be held back by poor line play and inconsistency in the passing game, a defense that struggled at times but held firm when they needed to, even more key injuries, and fumble recovery after fumble recovery after fumble recovery.
The Vols looked sharp on the opening drive, going 55 yards in just three plays to open up a 7-0 lead. But then the sloppiness set in. After a penalty-fueled Bobcats drive to cut the lead to 7-3, Micah Abernathy fumbled the ensuing kickoff, the first of three fumbles on the afternoon, all of which would be recovered by Tennessee. The Vols were able to recover and put together a short drive for a missed field goal, but the sloppiness continued. On their next possession, a pass off Preston Williams' hands fell straight into a defender's waiting arms, leading to a second Bobcats field goal. The rest of the first half saw one more touchdown from Tennessee, two more field goals--both set up by long completions--for Ohio, and a terrifying spate of injuries. By halftime, after losing Cam Sutton, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and Quart'e Sapp, Tennessee was missing four of the eleven starters from a week ago in Bristol.
Sadly for the men in orange, the second half brought little change. After quick punts on their first two possessions, Tennessee took advantage of a poor Ohio punt and put together an efficient 55-yard touchdown drive, capped off by a 12-yard Dobbs scamper into the end zone. But the Bobcats struck back, taking advantage of another long passing play and more penalties by the Tennessee secondary to score their first touchdown of the game, cutting the Vols advantage to 21-19.
But when the fourth quarter began with a mere two-point advantage, Tennessee's playmakers responded. Jalen Hurd fought hard for a pair of first downs in short yardage situation--including one where he was hit in the backfield--Dobbs threw perhaps his best pass of the day to Josh Malone for a twenty-yard touchdown, and the Tennessee defensive line completely shut down the Bobcats' attempts to pull back to within two, finishing with Derek Barnett terrorizing Ohio quarterback Greg Windham into an incompletion on 4th and 2 to seal the game away.
On the whole, injuries, offensive line play, and general sloppiness--penalties, fumbles, missed throws, and missed coverage on the back end--were the biggest issues for the Vols the week before the Gators come to down for probably the biggest game of Tennessee's season. And they will give Tennessee fans plenty to worry about as they prepare for the Florida game. But thanks to exemplary play by the defensive line, Tennessee will face the Gators undefeated for the first time in four years. Survive and advance. Go Vols.