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Once again, Tennessee falls flat on the road

What gives?

Tennessee v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Put another one on the board — another disappointing road performance from Josh Heupel’s program on the road. Tennessee fell flat on their face on Saturday afternoon in Columbia, losing 36-7. The game was certainly closer than that, but mistakes compounded and Eli Drinkwitz got his revenge from last season.

Tennessee couldn’t do anything. Nothing was developing in the run game, receivers were dropping balls, penalties, pitiful run fits and tackling. If not for a spectacular grab by Dont’e Thornton, the Volunteers might have been shutout.

It’s now officially a trend dating back almost a year to the day. Maybe longer. Tennessee has big problems on the road. This isn’t breaking news, we’ve all had our concerns, but some of those issues were seemingly worked out with a good performance in Lexington. However, Saturday’s game in Columbia looked a whole lot like the performance in the other Columbia a year ago.

Where did the defense go?

Missouri did what Tennessee typically does to opponents. The Tigers were completely balanced, powered by 205 rushing yards from Cody Schrader. Tennessee had no answers for the run game, as Missouri just dominated in the trenches.

That’s not something we’ve seen all year with this group. Tennessee’s front seven has been a strength, but they didn’t show up on Saturday.

“They created seams,” Josh Heupel said of Missouri’s run game. “He was able to make us miss, ran through some things too. At times, just gap integrity. They reached us and we didn’t have anybody in the front side gap. So combination of that. You look at Brady Cook, he made a bunch of plays with his feet too. Extended a bunch of drives on third down. And the difference in performances, the line of scrimmage.”

Missouri also leaned heavily on Schrader in the passing game, which once again, Tennessee had no answers for. He ended up with over 100 yards receiving, giving him a total of 300+ on the day.

“He’s athletic, understands the game at a really high level,” Heupel said of Schrader. “Understands leverage. He’s a part of their pass game too, and we didn’t do a very good job.”

Tim Banks’ defenses seemingly run white hot or ice cold. From Clemson/Kentucky/LSU to South Carolina/Alabama in 2022, to Texas A&M/South Carolina to Missouri/Florida in 2023. There’s typically been one constant there, and it’s playing on the road.

Worst offensive performance of the Josh Heupel era

As I said above, Tennessee was lucky to score seven points on Saturday. Nothing was working, which you can attribute to the lack of push up front. Missouri had Tennessee figured out, and Eli Drinkwitz admitted as much after the game.

“Jake Olsen, one of our analysts, had identified a couple of tendencies that they had,” Drinkwitz said. “We had identified a couple of things that we felt like were gonna be crucial for us. At the end of the day, all the best-laid plans are of mice and men: you got to go execute.”

That’s an interesting comment, and something Heupel and his staff will have to look at, and probably already are doing.

Heupel has always called the run game his ‘secret sauce,’ so naturally, 22 carries for 83 yards isn’t going to get the job done on most nights. Add in a couple of fumbles, penalties and a pick? That’s a recipe for disaster.

“Offensively just didn’t communicate early in the first drive (in the second half),” Heupel said. “But the second drive, have an opportunity and I think we have a penalty on that drive. Turnover on the next one. And the game got away. End of the day, we gotta play smart, smart football. And you gotta play extremely physical while you’re doing that. We did not do that on the offensive side of the football tonight.”

Heupel admitted that Missouri’s defensive alignment was different than what they were planning for, which might explain Drink’s comments above.

“Disappointed in the performance offensively. Their structure was a little bit different than what we anticipated, personnel on the defense side. I didn’t think we responded, reacted well in the first drive. Reacted to it and adjusted a little bit in the first half. I’m just really disappointed. We weren’t able to continue drives.”

More Penalties

You can’t even really blame the road environment here — Tennessee is simply one of the most penalized teams in America and that trend is not changing. Nine flags totalling 95 yards... that has become the norm.

“Huge. Huge, huge in the way the game was played,” Heupel said of the flags. “I already said it on offense, first-and-20, personal foul on the defensive side of football. Self accountability, man, got to play smart.”

Devastating holding calls, multiple personal fouls after the whistle. It’s just undisciplined football, and it’s happening entirely too much with no end in sight.

What’s the answer?

I don’t know. Clearly the staff doesn’t either, or it would have been fixed by now. They’re going to have to come up with something for next year though, because it’s an obvious trend at this point.

Tennessee’s road slate is done for the year, and they averaged 19 points per game offensively. They gave up 31.5 points game. Obviously the level of opponent changes those numbers, but you can’t dispute the fact that Tennessee laid two complete eggs (Missouri, Florida) and just completely vanished in the second half against Alabama.

Interestingly enough, I thought Joe Milton played pretty well overall in all of those games. It was the mental mistakes, defense and lack of a run game that ultimately did them in.

Tennessee goes to Arkansas, Georgia and Oklahoma next year. We don’t know the dates just yet, but these road failures can’t continue — especially with the College Football Playoff expanding next year.