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Five takeaways from Tennessee’s loss to Purdue in the Music City Bowl

There’s plenty to talk about after Tennessee’s gut-wrenching loss.

TransPerfect Music City Bowl - Purdue v Tennessee Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

When there are 93 combined points and an extra period of play in a bowl game, you know there will be plenty to talk about once that game is over.

That’s the exact case when it comes to the Tennessee-Purdue edition of the Music City Bowl. Both offenses consistently made big plays all night, especially during a fourth quarter that saw a combined 29 points scored over the last six minutes of the quarter.

So, what should we chew on now that everything is done and passed?

Let’s dive into the five takeaways from Tennessee’s 48-45 loss to Purdue.

5. The three-headed monster of Hendon Hooker, Cedric Tillman, and Jabari Small will be an even bigger force in 2022

What else can you say about these three? Hooker threw for a season-high 378 yards and five touchdowns (the five touchdowns are a new school record), Small ran for 180 yards and a touchdown, and Tillman caught seven receptions for 150 yards and three touchdowns.

There’s zero doubt that Tennessee’s offense will run through these three in 2022. And with another offseason, the chemistry will only get better. And when you add in the fact that surrounding cast will improve, then it’s easy to see why Tennessee’s main trio of skill players will be ready to take the SEC and NCAA by storm next year.

4. The Vols have to improve the pass rush and the secondary

That may seem a little strange considering the Vols came away with two sacks and three interceptions in this game, but one sack was the result of Aidan O’Connell holding onto the ball too long. One interception was more of a bad pass and another was picked off by Byron Young, who is a defensive end for the Vols. I’m not taking anything away from either play, just adding context.

It doesn’t help the Vols were missing their best corner in Alontae Taylor, but that’s the point. He won’t be on the team in 2022 and neither will Theo Jackson, the team’s starting nickelback. Tennessee was getting beat through the air all game long and it would’ve been much worse if O’Connell had been more accurate throughout the game.

And I think Warren Burrell just got called flagged for defensive pass interference as I write this.

Tennessee can scheme up pressure and get to the quarterback and they have a couple of solid players returning to the secondary in 2022, but they need guys who can consistently win their matchups without having to scheme. Teams -especially in the SEC- eventually catch on and said scheme then becomes spotty in terms of success.

O’Connell’s third pick was the perfect example of how effective this defense can be when the pass rush and the secondary are married for a play. The pass rush caused a bad throw and Trevon Flowers was in the right spot to make a play.

Tim Banks needs to find some guys in the offseason that can make that happen, but on a more consistent basis and without having to scheme pressure.

NCAA Football: Music City Bowl-Purdue at Tennessee
Byron Young was a good addition, but the Vols need to add more pass rushers in 2022.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

3. Ron English was right about Hendon Hooker’s deep ball

At least for this game.

Yes, Hooker has been better with the deep ball than what English gave him credit for coming in, but there’s no denying Hooker struggled with deep throws in this game.

Even his first two touchdown passes to Cedric Tillman were off. Both were behind a wide-open Tillman and the talented receiver had to adjust in order to make the play. To Hooker’s credit, he was under immense pressure and it looked like he may have been hit as he was completing his throwing motion on the second touchdown, but the pass was still off.

There’s also the underthrow to a wide-open Jalin Hyatt in the first quarter that would’ve been a touchdown if it were an accurate pass and he couldn’t hit an open JaVonta Payton in the end zone from 11 yards out. The Vols were bailed out with a defensive holding call on the next play that helped get them into the end zone. If it weren’t for the holding call, the Vols would’ve kicked a field goal.

Then there’s the misfire on the 3rd and 4 shot to Velus Jones Jr. in the second quarter and I don’t even know what Hooker tried to do on the subsequent 4th and 9.

In fact, the Vols went away from the deep ball in the second half. Hooker really didn’t attempt any more deep passes outside of the one to Hyatt in the fourth quarter and even though he may have been hit while throwing, it was still an extremely inaccurate throw.

English’s statement may have been off from an overall standpoint, but for this one game, he was right. And that’s what matters most.

2. Undisciplined Vols continue to show up in big games

For some reason the Vols continue to look undisciplined in big games. Whether it’s penalties, dropped passes, missed tackles, bad exchanges at the mesh point, or whatever, the team continues to make key mistakes during clutch moments of the games that matter most.

There’s no better example than Payne Durham’s big catch-and-run for the 62-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter. That play should’ve been about a 15-17 yard gain at best, but lapses in concentration, effort, and tackling allowed Durham to take it all the way to the house, which gave the Boilermakers a 38-31 lead with 4:58 left after the two-point conversion to Durham was good.

And then there’s Tennessee’s 14 penalties for 127 yards that included five DPIs. You simply can’t even beat mediocre teams posting numbers like that.

Tennessee has to get this fixed in 2022.

1. Does Heupel’s offensive philosophy hinder the Vols from closing out games in the fourth quarter?

Tennessee led 31-30 with 6:00 left in the fourth quarter, but eventually found itself mounting a comeback just to send the game to overtime.

Let’s think about it for a minute. When you’re up in the fourth quarter during a close game, you want to chew up as much clock as possible and your defense needs to get stops, right?

Well, what if you’re literally the fastest team in the country in terms of offensive pace and what if your defense is dead tired in the fourth quarter from the 70-75 plays you’ve already ran on offense? Even offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said that the offense needs to start wrapping up drives once they reach nine plays, because it starts to wear on the offensive line. Jordan Rodgers showed a play where the Vols literally don’t have a receiver run a route in order to stay fresh.

It’s easy to see why this can become an issue. Especially in the SEC, where players are competing against the toughest, most-talented players in the country. With all due respect, if the Vols wore down against Purdue, what’s going to happen against a more physical SEC team that also has its key players in the game?

If the Vols aren’t hitting the big plays late in the fourth quarter, then it leaves the door wide open for their opponents to make a comeback, or at least keep pace in terms of scoring.

We only have a two-game sample size for this scenario - Kentucky and Purdue. To Tennessee’s credit, the defense came away with the stop in that game (albeit it came after allowing the Wildcats to convert a 4th and 24), but it couldn’t get it done against Purdue.

I’m nowhere close to the level of even a pee-wee football coach, but something tells me your chances to close out a game need to be better than a coin toss. If the trend continues, then UT will be relying on their opponent to make a mistake instead of ending the game themselves. And that’s not a winning strategy in the SEC.

It’s still a bit early, but right now, it’s fair to wonder if Tennessee’s fast-paced offense hurts Tennessee’s chances of closing out close games in the fourth quarter.