Adversity Knocks, and Vols Melt
There are a lot of cliches involved when it comes to certain situations that arise in life, including sports, and how those situations are handled. Saturday in Knoxville presented an experiment for how an individual, or a group of people such as a college football team, responds when things don’t go their way.
It was just another physio-psychological experiment colored in orange and white.
Much of the response is learned behavior. Yes, there is physical ability, strength, and technique. But the missing leg to a stable chair is the mental strength. Part of that is within the makeup of a person. However, conditioning (psychological) is involved. Scenarios defined as adversity are presented, and actions are implemented in response. Each individual plays his role and all is melded into the group, either positively or negatively.
Robert Neyland knew this well, so well infact that he addressed it with one of his Seven Game Maxims. Maxim No. 3 says, “If at first the game – or the breaks – go against you, don’t let up… put on more steam.”
Easier said than done.
All players who don the orange jersey recite this maxim, along with the other six, as people recite a mantra, or a prayer in church. And then many of them get up off the cushion or pew and act as though they had never heard what they said or thought.
That’s because just going through the motions, with anything, is not a receipe for success.
You have to live the word, walk the talk. And the only way that happens is through mental conditioning – a training through repetition. Response to adversity through practice. Some get it the first time. Others never will. For most, it is a process of growth.
This is just as true for the Tennessee Vols as it is for the everyday person.
This is the biggest issue arising from the wake of the meltdown witnessed in Neyland Stadium Saturday evening.
It was Florida that was the recipient of adversity through much of the first half and deep into the third quarter. With an unproven quarterback, the Gators were seemingly not doing much more than just hanging on in the midst of a very raucous sellout crowd.
Florida relinquished an early 7-0 lead. Tyler Bray hit Cordarrelle Patterson on a 2-yard TD followed by another TD pass from Bray to Mychal Rivera, this time for 6 yards. And just before the end of the half, the Tennessee defense thwarted the Gator attack with a fine goal line stand, forcing Florida to settle for a field goal.
It was 14-10 Vols at the break, and you could feel the difference from one year to the next.
Tennessee had established a pretty good running game, allowing play-action passing to be sufficiently effective.
And even after the Gators opened up the third quarter with a field goal, aided by a 15-yard personal foul on Marsalis Teague and a 32-yard passing play for QB Jeff Driskel to Trey Burton, the Volunteers responded to the slipping lead with a 12-play, 81-yard TD drive capped by linebacker A.J. Johnson running the ball into the endzone.
The world seemed to be Tennessee’s oyster. The Gators looked deflated, as no one laid as much as a hand on the linebacker-turned-battering ram.
But the 7-point lead (20-13) stayed at seven as Derrick Brodus’ extra point attempt hit the left upright and fell into the arms of a Florida defender.
The Vol Nation just couldn’t celebrate without being reminded of our glaring deficiencies.
And that’s when things started to unravel for Tennessee. And that’s when Florida just put on more steam.
On the next play from scrimmage, Tyler Bray found himself the target of the blitzing DB Matt Elam. Not taking the sack, Bray slung the ball out to the left where the only human beings were a lone Florida cornerback and the rest of the Gator squad on the sidelines.
The intentional grounding penalty nullified the 12 yards gained on the next two plays, and Tennessee were forced to punt.
On their own 20-yard line and the object of a deafening noise from the south stands, Trey Burton took the handoff and raced 80 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown.
And after Tennessee’s next drive stalled, Gator RB Mike Gillislee scampered down the field for 45 yards followed by QB Jeff Driskel hitting Jordan Reed for a 2-yard score.
A seven point lead had turned into a seven point deficit just like that.
It was now 27-20 Gators.
Florida had responded to adversity. It was now Tennessee’s turn.
Derek Dooley would say after the game that, “[w]e had a great game going and we just let it slip away.”
That doesn’t begin to describe what actually happened.
Tyler Bray hit Cordarrelle Patterson for 8 yards and a first down on the final play of the third quarter. After that, Bray was 1-for-10, with the last eight being incomplete passes. The Vols didn’t make a first down during their four possessions of the final quarter.
What happened was that the Tennessee players had become discouraged to the point of being overwhelmed. All this was punctuated by Bray throwing incomplete passes with what seemed to be anger. Pressured by a now-relentless Gator pass rush, the Vol QB was taken completely out of his comfort zone. One pass was thrown into the back heels of a defender, two or three were put where the intended receiver was likely supposed to be and wasn’t (but who really knows), and two or three were thrown away out of bounds.
One of the throwaways were caught by former receiver and now embattled head coach Derek Dooley, who promptly slammed the ball down in complete disgust with his quarterback.
The meltdown was complete.
Meanwhile, Florida added 10 more points, with the signature moment of Frankie Hammond catching a Driskel pass for a 75-yard score when the Vols blitzed and nearly got to the QB. But they didn’t, and Hammond, after catching the pass, eluded the single defender with embarrassing ease.
It ended 37-20, but nearly was a larger difference when an apparent TD was called back because the ball carrier had stepped out of bounds.
Tennessee had suffered another second-half beatdown, 27 points to 6, rivaling some of the Vols’ worst moments of last season.
Other numbers were equally gauling. The Gators amassed 555 total yards, 336 of which were on the ground. The Vols gained a paltry 87 yards rushing, all of which were in the first three quarters.
In fact, Tennessee netted five yards of offense in the fourth quarter: an 8-yard completion and a run for minus three yards. All was hidden within 10 incomplete passes, a run for no gain, and a five yard penalty due to a false start.
The Vols failed in their immediate response to adversity.
Now is the real test. A poor Akron team, but one who scored over 60 points on Saturday, comes to Neyland Stadium next Saturday in what should be another game in which the Vols work on their deficiencies in preparation for road games at Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina. Throw in a home game against Alabama for good measure.
Whether the Vols turn the rest of this season into a mirror of 2011, or take what they have been given as food for growth, will be based on how this squad and their coaches deal with the adversity that has landed in their lap once again.
The response will speak volumes about a lot of things and a lot of individuals.