Tennessee Game Grades: Missouri Edition
Tennessee continues to move forward. Maybe not as fast as some people expected, and maybe not as fast they should, but there is no doubt that Tennessee is moving forward. The latest data point was last night’s win against Missouri. This was a typical 2015 win for the Vols, a game in which they controlled the pace of play and statistically dominated but failed to translate that stat-line domination into a scoreboard statement. Still, the Vols went on the road, in less than ideal weather, against an emotionally inspired team with a nationally ranked defense and came away with a dominating performance and a solid win. While the Vol faithful shouldn’t be happy about where they are at, they shouldn’t be disappointed either. Satisfied is probably the right word. Let’s take a look at each unit and how I graded them out.
Tennessee Game Grades: Missouri Edition
The Vol offense looked great outside of the red zone. They moved the ball well and established an effective and dominant running game that enabled Tennessee to control the pace of play for the entire evening. What leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, however, are the four field goals that resulted from stalled drives inside the Missouri 20-yard line. This game could have been a blow-out at the half had the Vol offense finished off their drives. Missouri’s defense is a very good defense, however, so let’s give the offense the credit they’re due.
Joshua Dobbs continued his wildly inconsistent passing performances this week. Dobbs, as he does, hit a few key passes in the vertical passing attack, but was helped out by a few Missouri penalties as well. The key stat for Dobbs for this game was a 3.7 yards-per-pass-attempt average. Against superior teams, particularly ones with functional offenses, this two-dimensional offense (rushing and short passing game) won’t be very successful. Dobbs was efficient in his rushing attempts, including a clutch, gutsy touchdown run that effectively sealed this game. He still looks like he’s nursing some sort of lower-body injury, as he handed off in the read option on a couple of clear keeps. Additionally, the inclusion of some speed option rushes seemed to leverage the threat of Dobbs running without him actually having to carry the ball past the line of scrimmage. Expect Vanderbilt to force Dobbs to run next week. He was also much better at protecting the ball this week.
Running Backs: B+
Another typical performance. Jalen Hurd was a punishingly effective runner and Alvin Kamara had a couple of big runs to complement Hurd’s bruising performance. It looked like the Tigers defense didn’t want any more of Hurd in the fourth, as the Vols were able to run for three consecutive first downs to close-out the game without an effective vertical passing threat. Hurd continues to be the most consistent aspect of the Volunteer offense.
Von Pearson and Josh Malone both had decent nights, with Pearson having by for his best overall receiving performance of the season. Opposite of the pattern of most of this season, the receivers were the most instrumental part of the passing offense rather than the running backs or the tight ends. The receivers made some nice catches, but struggled in gaining yards after the catch.
Offensive Line: B+
The offensive line had one of their best performances of the year, if not the best. They controlled the line of scrimmage for almost the entire night. They opened some nice holes for the running game even in absence of a vertical passing threat, and provided Dobbs time in the drop-back passing plays. They did have two costly penalties that killed two different drives. They’ve shown continued progress throughout the year, and if Robertson can stay healthy they have the ability to be good-to-very good line going into Tennessee’s bowl game. They’ll get another test next week against a Vanderbilt defense that is good and aggressive up front. And you can expect Derek Mason will force Dobbs to win the game by trying to shut down the Hurd/Kamara running attack.
As good as Missouri’s defense is, their offense is that bad. Even so, the Volunteer defense looked to be a physically dominant unit against an SEC offense. The Vols gave up five or less yards in over half of Missouri’s possessions. The entire defense played well last night and Missouri never seemed to be able to put anything together except for one drive.
Defensive Line: A+
The defensive line put pressure on the Tigers’ freshman quarterback all night long with a four-man rush. Even when Missouri was able to get passes downfield, Lock was getting hit by Barnett, Williams, McKenzie and Vereen. The line was also very effective against a decent Missouri running attack, as they controlled the line of scrimmage as much on defense as the Vol offensive linemen did on offense.
Pretty much the same story with the linebackers. They were excellent in run defense and whenever they blitzed. Jalen Reeves-Maybin was all over the field, as he always is. JRM ought to get serious consideration for All-SEC honors. And Darrin Kirkland, Jr. is playing at a surprisingly high level for a true freshmen at middle linebacker – probably the hardest position for a true freshman to play, including quarterback. Only a couple of pass coverage breakdowns, including Missouri’s one touchdown, kept the linebackers from a perfect grade.
Defensive Backs: A
Two interceptions, multiple pass break-ups, and solid tackling on quick screens and flat-route patterns earned the defensive backs a solid “A” grade. Cam Sutton finally looked like the Cam Sutton of 2014 with great tackling and an athletic interception early in the game. The backs helped the front seven set the physical tone of the game with some hard hitting in run support. Most importantly, they didn’t allow the freshman quarterback to get into any kind of rhythm at all in the Missouri passing attack. When the backs can be trusted in man coverage, the Tennessee front seven is effective in stopping a good rushing attack.
Special Teams: A-
Aaron Medley converted four of five field goal attempts. Missouri seemed to punt away from Cam Sutton, which was probably a good idea. But most importantly, Trevor Daniel was able to force Missouri to start drives inside their own 20 on six occasions, including four inside their own 15-yard line. And Evan Berry had another 40+ yard kickoff return. Tennessee’s special teams, outside of Medley’s struggles early in the year, continue to be a difference maker for the Volunteers.
When you’re averaging 3.7 yards per pass attempt, I’m not really sure why people complain about running the ball so much. Especially when you can get three first downs to close out the game when the nationally ranked defense knows you’re going to run. The reason Mike DeBord calls a conservative game at Missouri is because you simply don’t want to put an inconsistent Dobbs passing performance in position to give a struggling Missouri offense some momentum off turnovers or stalled, three-and-out drives. The bottom line is that this Tennessee team went on the road, against an emotionally charged team, and completely dominanted this game. That’s got to speak volumes about how well the coaching staff prepared this team for this game.
Next week’s game against Vanderbilt will look very similar. An athletic, nationally ranked defense with a struggling – in Vanderbilt’s case anemic – offense. Look for Tennessee to use the same game plan: a solid rushing attack, field position battle and letting the defense control the game.
If the Vols handle their business next week, you can expect a good bowl berth. I’m thinking either Music City or Taxslayer again. Either way, Tennessee will be heading into next week’s match-up with Vanderbilt with still plenty left on the line. Tennessee has won four in a row, wants to get to eight wins, and wants to go into the bowl practice sessions with continued positive momentum. Nothing would negate all of this forward movement worse than a loss to Vandy. And while it might be slow – too slow for some – the forward progress is clear and Tennessee wants to keep it going.