Moral victories are for Lane Kiffin.
Proud programs like the University of Tennessee football team don't make its name off 'almosts' and 'could've beens.' But -- unlike the past two season's worth of losses -- Saturday's 51-44 defeat at the hands of fifth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs doesn't make UT fans everywhere want to crawl in a hole and die of embarrassment.
There's plenty of blame to place in this game -- on the defense, on the inability to make open plays, on Tyler Bray. But there is also a lot to be proud of and a lot of hope moving forward. I'm sick and tired of griping about this football team [Lord knows I do it enough], so tonight, through my pain, I'm going to tap into that little bit of me that is happy with what I saw, as hard as it is to stomach.
If anything, the hurting actually feels good. Why? Maybe I'm searching for anything to be happy about, but this team fought its heart out on that football field against a team that is simply more talented and more experienced. If anything, the hurting is because while we cannot sit here and say "We should have won that football game," we can take some heart knowing we went toe-to-toe with a legitimate top-five team. Even if we squandered away opportunities to win.
Tonight, we can't say, "We quit." Tonight, we can't say, "We blew it." I don't even think we can say what I've been saying for two years ... that we're just not ready to win a game like this. We were ready. We just didn't make the plays that were presented to us that could have won the game.
But we grew up. A lot.
Sure, Bray had a really, really tough game that most would call a bad game. There were the two misses of a wide-open Justin Hunter on crossing patterns that would have sustained key drives. There was the inability to make the read of throwing to another open receiver on a third-down incompletion that targeted a triple-covered Cordarrelle Patterson instead. Then, of course, there was the horrid throw on the interception by Sanders Comming and the trying-to-do-too-much fumble that ultimately cost us the opportunity to win. But we saw Bray fight. We saw Bray care. And, whether any of us want to admit it or not, it was a necessary step in his progression.
Bray and Patterson and Hunter may leave us after this year -- though none are ready for the NFL -- but none of them have played more than a full season in the SEC. They're still learning to play in games like this. It's not an excuse. It's the truth.
But tonight showed us the absolute necessity of two things that I've been harping on forever with this coaching regime:
- The need to make backbreaking defensive plays.
- The need to run the football.
Let's first talk about the defense. It was a putrid, forgettable, embarrassing effort that I'm sure Sal Sunseri will pin on his group and use as a blueprint of what not to do moving forward. The dynamic freshman duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall were incredible for the Dawgs, running roughshod over and through -- in many cases, untouched -- the Vols on their way to 100-plus yard performances each. But without that "gawd-awful" defense, we would have gotten blown out of the football game.
It's easy to place the considerable blame on Sunseri's guys, but if you're going to do that, credit them for rallying the team, too. Three first-half turnovers turned a 27-10 deficit into a 30-30 halftime score. And our first touchdown of the game came from the defense, too, on Byron Moore's pick-six. With the game on the line and the Vols desperately needing stops to get the opportunity to win, the defense got stops.
It was a pitiful performance, but it was one that was laced with some positive glimmers of things we needed to see in this difficult transition to a new defensive scheme.
Now, onto running the ball. This was the best game that offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has called in his entire tenure at UT. It was a brilliant mixture of runs and passes. Even down two touchdowns to the Dawgs in the fourth quarter, Chaney was the opposite of the panicky OC he was against Florida, staying calm and calling runs. On the drive that brought UT to the final margin, the Vols lined up with Rajion Neal and just demoralized the Dawgs play-after-play.
After consecutive negative rushing performances against the Bulldogs, UT ran for 197 yards, and Neal had more than 100 by himself. He is really growing up before our eyes, he had the hot hand, and Chaney rode him. It's no secret why we scored 44 points against a very good defense that got two All-America caliber players back today in Baccari Rambo and Alec Ogletree. It's because we had success running the football and had a balanced, sound game calling plays. There are a lot of weapons on our offense, and we showed them all in a near-miss.
But we missed. That's the bottom line. Derek Dooley awaits that elusive big win. Bray took a major step forward today in the care and interest department, but he is simply not the all-around quarterback he needs to be yet to have success in the SEC. He is more of a thrower, and while he killed us in the end, he was TRYING to do too much rather than not enough. Maybe that's just a positive to me -- I don't know. But it was good to see even if that is a demented way to look at it.
I wrote after the Florida game that numbness wasn't far away. The blossoming first-half anger I felt would have given way to apathy if the Dawgs kept the pedal down. But we kept that from happening. Though there were too many negatives to call this game a success -- far from it -- there were enough good things to call it progress.
How far away are we? With a 3-2 record and a loss to two big rivals, any distance from a program-turning win seems too far. But at least it feels a lot closer than it has.