Tennessee Game Grades: Alabama Edition
Tennessee drops another close game in the 2015 campaign to fall to 3-4. We’re in year three of the Butch Jones tenure, so there are no moral victories in game losses. But this was a road game against a Top 10 team in the country and Tennessee was in this until the end. All four of Tennessee’s losses have come down to the last drive. I know Vol Nation doesn’t want to hear this, but this team is clearly close to breaking through. More on that at below.
Tennessee Game Grades: Alabama Edition
The Vol offense was able to put together several nice drives today. The problem with the offense is that they weren’t able to capitalize on those drives. Three missed field goals and some poor field position prevented the offense from finding a consistent rhythm. Finding a rhythm is something the offense has struggled with all season. But Tennessee showed some ability to move the ball against a very good Alabama defense, and if they can play that way the rest of the season, there’s no reason they shouldn’t win the rest of their games.
Joshua Dobbs continues to seek consistency. Dobbs’ passing continues to be the missing element to the Tennessee offense. Dobbs was under 60% again (13/22, 59%) and only had 171 passing yards. Many of his completions were swings to the running backs. The inability for Dobbs to be a legitimate downfield threat allowed Alabama’s stout front seven to key in on pass rushing and stopping the run. There’s no doubt that a young and inexperienced offensive line and a wide receiving corps that has yet to live up to its billing contributes to some of Dobbs’ issues; but if you look at that film, many of Dobbs’ throws are just off the mark, even when he has time. His decision making is not where it needs to be either. Dobbs missed a wide open Josh Malone today and held the ball too long on at least three occasions. Dobbs also had three sure interceptions dropped by the Alabama secondary. He was lucky this wasn’t a “D-“ game. Dobbs is playing well enough for Tennessee to beat average teams right now, but if Tennessee is to make a run at winning the East next year, Dobbs has to improve his decision making and downfield accuracy.
Running Backs: A
Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara had another strong performance. The Vols ran for a total of 171 yards on 39 carries – 23 for 113 from Hurd and Kamara – on a good Alabama run defense. As always, much of that was hard yardage. Most importantly, there weren’t a lot of negative plays and there were a couple of 10+ yard runs. This performance against an Alabama defense that was keying on the running game allowed the Tennessee offense to put together some sustained drives. And, with two true freshman on the offensive line, much of the work was done by the running backs themselves. Joshua Dobbs started strong on the ground, but couldn’t get any key runs in against the Tide in the second half. Tennessee will be able to leverage this strong running attack as the team moves forward.
The receiving corps continues to underachieve, but much of this is due to injuries and inconsistent quarterback play. There were some positive signs tonight. Both Josh Malone and Josh Smith made some plays to help out Dobbs tonight. And the Vols’ receivers didn’t have any egregious drops in the game, for the first time all season. You’d like to see a few more plays being made, but with balls being delivered off target and and out of rhythm, it’s hard to grade the receivers too low.
Offensive Line: C+
The bottom line here is that you can’t really grade off of a curve; you’ve got to grade on the performance. The line had two true freshman and had to shuffle positions. Considering their youth, experience, and the Alabama defense, the line performed well above expectations. But they couldn’t protect Dobbs when it counted most like late in the fourth quarter when Tennessee was in obvious passing downs. This would ultimately doom the Vols’ hope for a dramatic come back. The line did do well – for the most part – in their run blocking. This was helped out with some crafty schemes and play calling. Again, if they can find some consistency, they should be well suited to finish the season strong.
This was easily the best defensive performance this season for the Vols. Tennessee played a classic bend-but-don’t-break defense tonight and it was almost good enough to win. Alabama got their numbers, but most of that was in the middle of the field. That’s got to be encouraging to Tennessee fans, although another successful final drive for an opponent puts a damper on what was otherwise an outstanding performance against a quality offense.
Defensive Line: A
The defensive line played easily their best game of the season this week. The defense had constant pressure on Alabama quarterback Jake Coker and created numerous negative yardage plays for Derrick Henry at the line of scrimmage. Depth may have played an issue as the line wasn’t able to get the same pressure on the last Alabama drive. Overall, this was clearly the best unit of the night.
The linebacking unit continues to have strong performances. Jalen Reeves-Maybin ought to start getting All-SEC and possibly All-American consideration. Tennessee held Alabama to 117 rushing yards on 42 carries, and while Derrick Henry got his numbers (28 carries for 143 yards), the Vols prevented him from dominating the game. The only negative for the linebackers continues to be a few missed tackles here and underneath pass coverage. The linebackers look great working with the defensive line on pass rushing and run support, but seem to be out-of-sync with the secondary on pass coverage.
Defensive Backs: C+
The Vols’ biggest success in pass defense was not allowing an Alabama big play, but most of that is due to scheme. The Vols ran a two-deep (REALLY deep), cloud coverage all night with their safeties. While Justin Martin made some good plays, he was also successfully targeted on multiple occasions. Additionally, Cam Sutton isn’t the same shut-down corner that he was last year. Once Coker started getting decent protection late in the fourth quarter, he was able to consistently find and hit receivers. The Vols will have to continue to work on this as they prepare to face Kentucky and Patrick Towles next week.
Special Teams: D
Aaron Medley missed three field goals tonight. Had he made just two of the three, the Vols would have found themselves in overtime at the very least. Make all three and the Vols are smoking cigars with a rivalry win. Medley has been inconsistent all season and this is the third game where the difference was within a missed field goal. Tennessee must get the field goal game in order if they want to compete at the highest levels and in the biggest games. Tennessee’s punting and punt return wasn’t able to turn the field position either, which hampered the offense. The only strong points in today’s special teams performance was Evan Berry in the kickoff return game.
The coaching staff took a lot of heat after the Oklahoma and Florida games. But you can’t ignore a couple of facts in this game. First, the team was mentally and emotional prepared for this game. Second, the offense was able to put together drives without a legitimate vertical passing threat. You can call Offensive Coordinator Mike DeBord’s play calling conservative if you want, but without Dobbs hitting passes in the second- and third-levels, there’s not much more he can do. The defensive scheme was very effective and kept the Alabama offense in check except for two drives: the first of the game and the last of the game. Butch Jones’ game management enabled Tennessee to have the ball with a chance to win with 2:24 left. You can’t really ask much more for an Alabama game plan from the coaching staff. Much like the defense, best game of the year for the coaches.
So the Vols sit at 3-4, one game away from where I thought they would be at this point (4-3, with losses to Alabama, Georgia, and Oklahoma). This game doesn’t hurt nearly as much as Florida and Arkansas. But Tennessee finds itself back at the precipice. Tennessee should win the rest of their games: at Kentucky next week, versus South Carolina and North Texas, at Missouri, and versus Vanderbilt. They will be favored in all of those games, and if they play like they did today in the loss to Alabama, they’ll win each of those games. That will put them at 8-4, which is the lower end of where they wanted to be this year. But, just like last year, there is no room for error from here on out. Can Tennessee put together another strong late season run? We’ll find out starting next week.