Tennessee narrowly escaped with a win against a 28-point underdog on Saturday against UMass. The defense held their own, but the offense struggled early.
The first four drives of the game resulted in a turnover, a missed field goal, and just under 100 total yards of offense. There were zero points on the board and quarterback Quinten Dormady was 6/11 for 52 yards in the passing department.
The Vols faced a 3rd and 3 on their own 27-yard line. They lined up to snap the ball and then it happened.
Illegal substitution. Five yard penalty. 3rd and 8 at the Tennessee 22.
Just another typical first half of Tennessee offense.
But instead of a failed third down conversion attempt, Dormady dropped back into a big pocket with plenty of time to find a streaking Brandon Johnson across the middle for UT's biggest play (yardage-wise) of the season.
“I got this” — Brandon Johnson pic.twitter.com/ABUkiRDeHA— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) September 23, 2017
That play began an onslaught of offense for the Vols. Before the first half was over Tennessee scored touchdowns on two consecutive possessions, gained 177 yards in the second quarter, and had built a 14-6 lead over UMass.
The offensive production was due to a healthy combination of an improved Dormady and running back John Kelly. Dormady was 9/9 for 107 yards and 1TD and Kelly had four carries for 40 yards during the splurge.
After halftime, Dormady had the offense on the move again. He completed a perfect pass to Johnson on a 3rd and 7 to keep the chains moving and he would have had the Vols in the red zone, but a combination of a great defensive play by Minutemen defensive back Isaiah Rodgers and a drop by Vols wide receiver Jeff George ended Dormady's streak of 10 straight completions.
That drive ended with no points, but the Vols were able to change that on their next possession. Another potentially huge gain was squandered when running back Ty Chandler slipped on a pass in mid-run, but the Vols were still able to come away with a field goal.
Even though it ended in points, this drive is where things started to get a little - odd. On 3rd and 5 from the UMass 22 the coaches elected not to have Kelly on the field. This is just one of many times this season where the best players weren't on the field at important moments.
On this play, Dormady does a very good job of moving up in the pocket to avoid a sack that would have taken the Vols out of field goal range. Aaron Medley then comes out and kicks a 40-yard field goal to put the Vols up, 17-6.
I already mentioned the results of the first four drives of the game for the Vols. At this point, the last four drives had resulted in 17 points, 187 yards, and no turnovers.
So what does Butch Jones decide to do? Search for an apparent "spark" that was missing for his offense. He decides to change quarterbacks and play Jarrett Guarantano. He decides this right after UMass drives down and lands a massive counterpunch, scoring a touchdown to pull them within four, 17-13.
Jones said in his post-game presser that the Vols were "looking for a spark and looking for energy" with the quarterback change, "what happened today was a by-product of what happens in practice", and "there were too many third-and-long situations" that dictated the flow of the offense.
There are many things to dissect here and I will start with the obvious - which is why the hell did Jones decide at this point in the game to pull Dormady? Dormady was not playing perfectly by any means, but he also wasn't playing bad enough to be pulled. Additionally, the offense was producing better than it had all day.
Jones totally threw the proverbial wrench in the plans when he brought in Guarantano and of course, it did not work out well at all.
The decision could have ended in disaster. Not only did the Vols have their three worst possessions of the game - they ran 11 plays for a total of 10 yards - but they almost lost a fumble on a miscommunication between Guarantano and Kelly. If defensive end Roderick Jones, Jr. jumps on the ball instead of trying to pick it up and run, then this situation would have escalated real quick.
And don't forget the unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty Jones received in the first half. It allowed UMass to get the ball on the UT five and punch the ball in for a touchdown.
These types of sequences have cost the Vols games before, and it is extremely troubling and worrisome to see them continue, yet again. Especially in a game such as this, one that does not hold much weight in the grand scheme of things.
The whole "by-product of practice" line doesn't make much sense, either. But I guess when you couple it with another one of Jones's statements during the presser of "you have to win Monday, Tuesday - Saturday doesn't matter" - then it seems as if your actions on Saturdays don't resonate with Jones as much as practice days do.
Which could explain a lot these days, if you think about it.