All week the dominant narrative around this game revolved around Appalachian State‘s historic upset of fifth-ranked Michigan in 2007. The one thing Tennessee wanted to do was come out early and establish control of this game early. Tennessee didn’t establish control until the final seconds of this game.
Tennessee Game Grades: Appalachian State Edition
Tennessee’s offense, returning nine starters from a 2015 team that averaged 35.2 points, looked nothing like the reports coming from camp. The single biggest offensive struggle was consistency, which was a common theme in the first half of last season. The offense was able to move in spurts, but couldn’t sustain drives and certainly had trouble closing in the red zone. This inability to put together first downs almost derailed the Tennessee hype train before it had even left the station. The most concerning aspect of this game was a lesser talented Appalachian State team out-hustling the Vols and winning a majority of the one-on-one matchups. A performance like this in SEC play will make Atlanta seem a million miles away at season’s end.
Offensive Stat of the Game: First Downs. Tennessee lead this category 19-17. In last season’s loss to Clemson, Appalachian State lost the first down battle 22-12. Tennessee’s offense could not control the ball against a very talented Mountaineer team.
Joshua Dobbs‘ play was very conservative against Appalachian State. This was likely a product of the play calling, but the reluctance of Dobbs to use his feet at least once every five or six option reads, let the Mountaineers defense key on the running backs. Dobbs’ struggles in the passing game continued, missing several mid-level passes and then missing badly on an easy screen to Jalen Hurd late in the game when Tennessee desperately needed another first down. Dobbs did have a beautiful 67-yard touchdown pass to Josh Malone that evened the score in the second half. Dobbs’ only sustained success in the passing game was the quick slant route to tight end Ethan Wolf, which twice resulted in first downs. Again, this has to improve — and quickly — if Tennessee wants to realize their championship aspirations this season.
Running Backs: C+
Probably the most uncharacteristic performance of the evening. While there wasn’t a lot of daylight for the dynamic running back duo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, the talented two seemed to miss some key cuts when the lanes did present themselves. They managed 131 yards on 34 carries, an unimpressive total for a team that averaged 224 yards per game last season. There were some contributing factors, poor blocking and an absence of an effective pass game, but the running game certainly didn’t meet expectations in the first game of the season.
By far the best group of the evening. Preston Williams had a strong first half and Josh Malone had the afore-mentioned 67 yards touchdown pass, where he used a six inch height advantage to haul in a deep pass and finished. The most consistent group, Williams, Malone and Wolf caught everything thrown there way. Gone were the drops that plagued the unit last season, with almost all of the missed throws coming on poor passes. If the receivers can keep this consistency, one must think the running game will find its pace and the offense can get better.
Offensive Line: D
It was a tough night for an offensive line that was expected to be the most improved unit this season. Coleman Thomas struggled at center, with two penalties and several missed blocks. Drew Richmond, the highly touted redshirt freshman, struggled in the first half. The line overall looked unsynchronized in the run blocking scheme and lost several individual match-ups in pass protection. This is especially concerning considering the Appalachian State lack of size on the defensive front. Look for this to be a focus of practice during the next week.
The defense looked much better than the offense, although it might not seem that way immediately after surviving overtime. Remember, the Moutaineers averaged over 36 points a game last season and are returning a majority of their offense. Their running game is very good. Appalachian State’s first touchdown came off of a special teams turnover. And Appalachian State missed a field goal and rushed their last minute drive. Still, this is a very good offense. The Vols gave up 17 first downs, but held when they needed to.
Defensive Stat of the Game: Appalachian State 108 yards passing. Tennessee did an effective job and making App State a one-dimensional team, although it struggled against that one dimension.
Defensive Line: C+
The defensive line struggled to handle a relatively small Mountaineer front five, who used the cut blocking technique effectively. This team blocks similar to a triple-option team, and Tennessee’s defensive front struggled to be agile enough to shut down lanes. Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis left the back side open on two jet sweeps, but Derek Barnett looked solid on the other side. There was a noticeable absence of disruption in the Appalachian State backfield from highly touted players Kahlil McKenzie and Jonathan Kongbo.
The loss of Jalen Reeves-Maybin to a targeting call early in the game was noticeable. Cortez McDowell found his rhythm later in the game, but had multiple missed tackles that led allowed first down-gaining extra yardage. Darren Kirkland, Jr. had a relatively quiet evening.
Defensive Backs: B+
The defensive backfield looked solid in the passing defense game. As mentioned previously, App State quarterback Tyler Lamb was held to 108 yards on 15 completions (4.7/completion). His one long pass and touchdown was a wheel route with Corey Vereen in coverage on the running back. Taking that out, the DBs allowed only 75 yards and had a key take-away by Cam Sutton in the second half. They were slightly less effective in run defense support, but didn’t allow any big running plays. Easily the best unit of the evening.
Special Teams: C-
Single biggest play of the game was Cam Sutton’s fumbled punt reception on the first drive of the game. It allowed Appalachian State to control the early momentum and the field position. The punt team also gave up a long punt return late in the game, although Trevor Daniel may have the best punter tackle in recent memory. Evan Berry was excellent on his one return of the evening and Aaron Medley is off to a solid start.
New Offensive Coordinator Mike DeBord will take some heat for some conservative play calling, and that’s a legitimate argument. But before DeBord gets more aggressive in the passing game, Dobbs has to prove he can complete the downfield pass. Bob Shoop‘s debut was mediocre, as the defense was solid, but didn’t create the physical domination or turnovers expected. The good news is Tennessee was able to weather a late game five-alarm fire and survive. In fact, Tennessee looked the more confident and calm team late in the game, much different from last season. The real test of the Tennessee coaches is the adjustments made during the week. Grading on a curve here.
Next game: Virginia Tech (Battle At Bristol), September 10th. Tennessee must shore up the running game and improve the downfield passing. The defense should match-up better against a Justin Fuente pass-oriented offense.
Survival. That’s the only way you can describe this game. No one doubted the quality of Appalachian State. But if Tennessee is to compete at the level they think they can, they have to play better than they did tonight, particularly in individual battles on the line of scrimmage. But Tennessee is 1-0, and you can’t win them all if you don’t win the first one.
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