Tennessee Game Grades: South Carolina
Consistency, consistency, consistency. The Vols thought they had things sorted out after their most complete games of the season last week against Kentucky. They came into today’s game as decided favorites against a South Carolina program in disarray after Steve Spurrier’s midseason departure and disappointing losses early in the season. But the Vols took a step back, and the fans were seeing nightmares of early season second half collapses. It all comes down to Tennessee needing more consistency throughout the game.
Tennessee Game Grades: South Carolina Edition
This game had the look of a rout after the first two series. Tennessee’s offense moved the ball at will and scored two fairly easy touchdowns, but after a first quarter fumble, the offense lost their way until late in the fourth quarter. When all the units are executing their assignments, this offense can be deadly. But the offense operated in spurts and starts tonight. Let’s take a look at each unit.
Joshua Dobbs continues to be the wayward measure for the Volunteer offense. Dobbs was a perfect example of Tennessee inconsistency in this game. Dobbs had some really good aspects of his performance tonight. He had a 58% completion rate, still short of the 60% measure of quality for quarterbacks, but considering there were at least three bad drops, the Vols will take that number. His completion percentage on 3rd down was outstanding. Dobbs’ success on third down was really the difference in this game. But he had some poor aspects as well. He continued his ball control issues with two fumbles, one resulting in a turnover that stunted the Vols first half momentum. He also only had 35 rushing yards, most of those on scrambles. For Tennessee to be in rhythm, Dobbs has to be a significant – maybe not dominant, but significant – part of the rushing offense. Particularly in this game with the Gamecocks getting scorched by Kyler Murray last week. Dobbs must have better ball control and be more involved in the running game for the Vols to get to where they want to go.
Running Backs: B+
This might look like a generous grade here, but don’t rely on just the rushing stats. Sure, 120 yards out of Hurd and Kamara combined isn’t the best effort against a defense that hasn’t had success against the run this season. But as they’ve done all season, they contributed in the passing game with six receptions for 40 yards and one touchdown. And on a night when the offensive line struggled, Jalen Hurd had several nice blitz pick-ups in pass protection, which aided in Dobbs’s relative success passing. Hurd particularly seemed to deal with footing issues all night. Hurd and Kamara remain – by far – the most consistent unit on this team. I’ll say it again: While Dobbs is the bell-weather of this team, I think Hurd is the most important player on this team.
After a promising game against Kentucky, the Vol receivers took a step back tonight. There were at least three bad drops, including Josh Malone’s in the end zone, a catch that would have effectively put the game away. And the receivers struggled to get yards after the catch, save Ethan Wolf’s great effort in the second half. The receivers didn’t have a good night blocking downfield, either. Again, staying with the consistency theme, there were some positive performance as well. Von Pearson had his best game of the night with seven catches. And the receivers averaged over 12 yards per catch due mostly to being able to get good separation. South Carolina wanted to force Tennessee to win the game in the air, and the receivers did just barely enough to make that happen.
Offensive Line: C+
The offensive line has been playing better than expected most of the season. Tonight, though, they looked confused particularly in the run-blocking game. Again, they had their moments and played decently in pass protection. But they failed to get out into their blocks on the stretch sweep plays and were largely ineffective in opening up opportunities on the inside runs. Not sure if it was the footing or Carolina schemes, but something was preventing the offensive line from run blocking tonight. Tight-end Ethan Wolf had the best run block of the evening on a Jalen Hurd third down conversion run.
The Vols played lights-out defense in the first half, and then allowed the Gamecocks to score 21 points in the third quarter, their best offensive quarter of the season. But unlike the Oklahoma and Florida games, the defense was able to hold on at the end, getting their only turnover inside their own 10-yard line with less than a minute to play. Were it not for key stops after a turnover in the first half, this would have been a solid C performance. Depth was a concern in the second half when the Vol offense couldn’t put together many long drives.
Defensive Line: B+
Owen Williams was the stand-out performer of the night for the Vols. He was dominate, especially against the running game. The line was able to get good pressure on Carolina quarterback Perry Orth all night, but was exposed on several key quarterback draws and scrambles. Tennessee cannot afford to sell out to the pass rush all night long; they must maintain a presence in the middle of the line. The line also seemed to wear down late in the game, particularly in run defense. What was a position of depth at the start of the season is starting to show some wear and tear as the season progresses.
The linebacker unit relied on their athleticism much of the night. They were able to chase down some of the outside runs, but the Gamecocks were able to get the edge too much. Run support in the middle was hit-or-miss in the second half as well. Most importantly was their pass defense. Carolina running backs were able to take swing passes for first downs on several occasions. This is another area where I think lack of depth contributed to a tired unit late in the game. It was really just an average game for the linebackers.
Defensive Backs: C+
While Perry Orth was just barely over 50% completion rate, he threw for three touchdowns and 233 yards against the Tennessee defense. Those are numbers the Tennessee secondary shouldn’t give up to Perry Orth, especially after a solid performance last week against Patrick Towles. Orth wasn’t necessarily slinging it; Carolina’s success was really the result of the receivers getting open and getting separation. Carolina averaged over eleven yards per reception. And Brian Randolph’s targeting penalty in the first half was an egregious error on his part, especially since the Vols were already without Emmanuel Moseley for the first half.
Special Teams: A
Aaron Medley was 1-for-1 on field goals, Cameron Sutton had two good punt returns to change field position, the kickoff return game was strong again, and all the coverage teams played very well. While nothing compared to last week’s two touchdown game, another solid performance from easily the most consistent phase of the Tennessee team this season.
The players didn’t execute at their best tonight, but tonight’s game shows a pattern. This is the fourth game this season where Tennessee has had a strong first half and blown a lead late in the game. It almost seems as the game planning is great but the in-game adjustments aren’t very effective. Clock management was fine, except for one inexplicable timeout with South Carolina not even set and two seconds remaining on the play clock. Fans can gripe about the play calling, but it’s not as bad as it seems. The constant inside running and sweeps are partly because of the system and partly because of philosophy. Continuing to establish that inside run game is an investment that has paid off in previous games, but not tonight. This wasn’t the best called game and like everything else it was wildly inconsistent. But it was good enough to win.
And that’s the story of the night: inconsistent but good enough to win. That was the minimum expectation coming into this season. Many had hoped for wins against Florida and Oklahoma, and that didn’t occur. But what had to happen was Tennessee beating teams in the East not named Florida and Georgia. Tennessee will win next week against North Texas, one of the worst teams in FBS. If they can win against Missouri and Vanderbilt – games they’ll be heavily favored in – they’ll finish second in the East and get into a decent bowl. But to finish strong, they must find some consistency across the board.