Stating the Obvious
The Vol defense is killing the promise of this season.
But you already knew that.
And some of you think of that promise as being long dead.
Tennessee had nearly erased the memory of a first half begging to be forgotten.
With the Vols trailing by a lone field goal, after having been down by as much as 13 points, Tennessee had to start a fourth-quarter drive on their own 12 yard line. The Vols’ Mr. Everything, Cordarrelle Patterson — already having returned a first-half kickoff for a touchdown, caught a third-quarter pass for a TD to bring Tennessee back to within three, and turned a reverse from a disaster into a jaw-dropping 34-yard gain — made a nice 8-yard run.
The offensive line was having their way with the Bullies’ front line, and there wasn’t a cowbell to be heard.
Devrin Young, who had to take over the lead rusher duties from Rajion Neal who had left the game with an injury, followed with another fine run, this time for 11 yards to the Vol sideline. But Mississippi State’s rugged cornerback Johnthan Banks wrenched the ball right out of Young’s grasp. The ball fell straight down — it could have bounced out of bounds, but that isn’t the fortune of these Volunteers ballers — and Banks dropped straight down to make the recovery, without a limb or a digit touching the sideline stripe.
Momentum sometimes turns on a dime. This was one of those times.
Mississippi State’s offense, which could not be stopped by Tennessee in the first half, all of a sudden had only made two first downs in the second half on four possessions.
Now they smelled blood, with 9:12 left in the contest.
Tyler Russell, enjoying plenty of time to survey the field, hit Chad Bumphis for a 25 yard gain to the Vol 5 yard line. Two plays later, State scored a TD to make it 34-24. The cowbells were back with a vengence.
But the Vols answered quickly after starting the subsequent possession with good position on their own 42 yard line after a State facemask penalty tacked on 15 yards from where the sqib-kick had been downed.
A 26-yard strike from Tyler Bray to Justin Hunter. A 15-yard run by Patterson. Two rushes by Young were followed by a nice 10-yard TD pass to Ben Bartholomew. It was back to a 3-point deficit that it had been only a couple of game-clock minutes ago.
The clock showed 5:22, which seemed like plenty of time for a game-tying field goal or a game winning TD, especially when considering that State had not created one of those clock-eating drives the entire second half.
But Dan Mullen’s troops put on a ball-control show. Four first downs had the Bulldogs peeking at a win at the Vol 23 yard line. Then, LaDarius Perkins ran up the middle for 15 of his 101 game rushing yards to inside the 10 yard line for a first and goal.
There were two minutes left, and holding State to a field goal could possibly give Tennessee a hail-mary shot. Three rushes for minus one yards made it 4th down. Mullin was not interested in a field goal. Tyler Russell made a nice play fake and then hit Malcolm Johnson in the back end of the endzone for a touchdown to make the final 41-31 State.
It was an absolutely audacious and brilliant play call. It was perfect execution. It rubbed everything negative in the face of this Tennessee Volunteer football program.
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
There were many things to point to as moments that killed Tennessee’s prospects for a badly needed SEC win.
There was Byron Moore’s third-quarter drop of a Tyler Russell pass in wide open space that could have perhaps given Tennessee the ball near midfield or farther and led to a go-ahead touchdown.
There was Mychal Rivera’s second-quarter bone-headed brain freeze on a pooch kickoff that was recovered by State as an on-sides kick, giving the Bulldogs the ball at the Vol 33, setting up a TD scored five plays later giving the Maroons a 27-14 lead. Ten consecutive points without Tennessee getting one snap from center.
But those moments don’t begin to get to the root problem.
When this season began, and after moving into this season’s campaign, the Vols had little in the way of a running game, and their place kicking woes were legendary. But the new defensive scheme created interest and excitement.
Now, Tennessee has a running game to be reckoned with, even in the run-rugged SEC, and the place kicking appears to have been resurrected to respectability (based on a viewing of the quality of Michael Palardy’s kicks in Starkville).
But the defense is a complete train wreck; an out-of-control dumpster fire.
Big plays (>20 yards) — especially really loooong ones — are now the bugaboo of this season.
In Starkville, Mississippi State continued the trend with six plays of greater than 20 yards. But they weren’t huge plays of the likes of those given up to Florida, Georgia, and even Akron. None of those six plays went for 30 or more yards.
Instead, the Volunteer defense bled to death last night.
In the first half, Mississippi State ran 51 plays from scrimmage compared with Tennessee’s 20. The Vols gained some ground in the second half, running more plays than State (38 to 31). But in the end, the game totals of State’s 82 plays to Tennessee’s 58 created a nearly impossible situation for the Vols. Cordarrelle Patterson’s kickoff return for a TD made the game closer than it actually was from a scrimmage perspective.
The time of possession accentuates the issue even clearer.
In the first half, Mississippi State had the ball for 22:24 compared with Tennessee’s 7:16. And for the game total, possession time stood with a 13 minute differential, 36:31 to 23:29.
Yes, a hurry-up offense can win with a deficiency in game-clock possession time, but only if their defense can bend but not break.
Instead, Sal Sunseri’s defense was cut to shreds, possession after possession in the first half, running up nearly 300 total yards, over 200 of those in the air, and scoring 27 points. A total of 450 yards by State for the game — 308 in the air and 142 on the ground — translating to another 40+ points, killed Tennessee.
And this will continue to kill Tennessee’s prospects for a season with any semblance of cumulative improvement that everyone is searching for.
Was the move to the 3-4 defensive scheme away from the 4-3 an ill-advised decision? Or, is the new scheme just too complicated? Is some watered-down version needed as a band-aid?
Are these the wrong position coaches and Defensive Coordinator?
Or is it simply that the players in the orange jerseys are not good enough to stop anybody, regardless of the scheme or coaching staff?
The answers to all of these questions seem to be as elusive as an SEC victory for Derek Dooley, who’s job anymore seems to be to take all of the blame for absolutely everything.
Now the battle appears to be whether Dooley can keep this team’s attention and desire. Last season, the Head Coach lost control of the situation — players and coaches — culminating in the worst loss imaginable in Lexington. It was a near mutinous situation.
With Bama and Carolina looming in the next two weeks, we won’t likely know until November if last season’s implosion will repeat itself.
The ability to keep his players engaged and motivated to fight for each other will likely be the metric that will be used to determine if Derek Dooley will see another season at the helm of the Vols.
The best, or worst, is yet to come.