Call it Redemption Saturday. After last week’s Houdini escape from a feisty Appalachian State team, many fans and experts cast aside Tennessee as the over-hyped team of the year. The Battle at Bristol turned into a story more about venues and attendance than the two teams playing. Yes, the crew from Bristol, Connecticut made the trip to Bristol, Tennessee, but the focus was on other teams, in other towns, playing in other games.
It seemed like Saturday night would be a rerun of last Thursday lackluster effort. But then the second quarter happened, and the 2016 Vols opened their season. But just as pundits and voters shouldn’t have over-reacted too much to the App State near-disaster, they also shouldn’t over-value this game. A talented, but young, Virginia Tech team made far too many mistakes against the Vols to stay competitive in this game.
Here’s how each Tennessee unit graded out in Tennessee’s 45-24 victory over Virginia Tech.
Tennessee Game Grades: Virginia Tech Edition
The Volunteer offense was completely ineffective last week. They came out in the same form for the first quarter Saturday night. Tennessee had three drives with 10 total plays for 28 yards in the first quarter. After the first quarter, Tennessee scored 45 points, albeit they were the beneficiaries of several Virginia Tech turnovers. While Tennessee did show a big play ability — Joshua Dobbs had three runs over 25 yards and one pass over 25 yards — they never put together a sustained drive. Their best sustained drive of the night was a nine-play, 58 yard effort in the second quarter. No other drive had more than six plays in it.
Offensive Stat of the Game: Joshua Dobbs‘ Rushing. Quarterback Dobbs, who was very limited in rushing attempts last week, rushed 14 times for 106 yards and two touchdowns. The added dimension to the running game stressed Virginia Tech’s defense
Joshua Dobbs’ running effort was the difference tonight. His 106 yards on the ground led the Vols rushing attack. And while his passing numbers weren’t good (10-19, 91 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT), he was very efficient in the passing game. He did enough to stretch out the Virginia Tech defense. Dobbs completed two nice touchdown throws to Juaun Jennings and Josh Malone and had another classic Tennessee Checkdown to the Checkerboards with Alvin Kamara. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: Dobbs doesn’t have to win games with his arm, he needs to do just enough. He wins games with his legs, as he did tonight.
Running Backs: B
The running backs, especially Kamara, were fairly quiet tonight on the running stat sheet, but you cannot place a value on the consistency of Jalen Hurd‘s physical running. While we did see a glimpse of the two-back set that the offensive staff as hinted at in the off-season, we didn’t see any significant play calling from that set. Kamara was again largely absent from the offense, especially in the running game. Expect the Vols to complement Hurd’s steady physicality and Kamara’s dynamic explosiveness in the Florida game.
Continuing their improved play this season, the receivers made two big one-on-one touchdown catches to get the offense into a rhythm. The receivers are really the unit that got this offense going on Saturday night. That’s a refreshing change from an overall lackluster 2015 effort. Those two one-on-one efforts, leveraging their size on passes in the end zone, loosened the Hokie defense just enough to allow Tennessee’s rushing attack to take over midway through the second quarter.
Offensive Line: C
It was another tough night for the offensive line unit. Redshirt freshman Drew Richmond again struggled in protecting Dobbs’ blind side and the Vols replaced Coleman Thomas in the line-up twice. Jack Jones entered at right guard. The line did benefit from some scheme changes with Mike Debord bringing tight end Ethan Wolf in to a halfback position to help in pass blocking. While this effectively eliminated much of the receiving option for Wolf, it was necessary to help shore up the pass protection for Dobbs. For Tennessee to have a chance to beat Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M, or Alabama in their brutal four game stretch beginning in two weeks, the offensive line must show marked improvement.
The defense again utilized a bend but don’t break strategy against the Hokie offense. Virginia Tech had 21 first downs and went 6-13 (46%) on third downs. The Vols defense was willing to give up the underneath passing routes to eliminate any possibility of Hokie receiver Isaiah Ford from beating them over the top. They also gave up 186 yards of rushing (127 for Travon McMillian). They’ll have to do better than that going forward, as every team won’t cough up the ball five times.
Defensive Stat of the Game: Virginia Tech 5 Turnovers.
Defensive Line: B-
For the second straight week, the defensive line failed to get sustained pressure in the offensive backfield. They did not disrupt the opposition’s rushing attack significantly. Shy Tuttle and Derek Barnett had the best nights of the linemen. But, as with many facets of the Vols’ game, the defensive line must play better going forward. The good news is that this unit is getting contributions from several players such as LaTroy Lewis and Danny O’Brien. This enables the unit to get better as the game goes along, which they clearly did tonight. Their play in the second and third quarters was much better than in the first quarter. Of course, that was true for every Tennessee unit.
The linebacking unit had a solid, not stellar, night. Jalen Reeves-Maybin played his normal game, sideline to sideline and in on almost every action. Colton Jumper filled in for an injured Darren Kirkland, Jr. with some success. The ankle injury to Darren Kirkland, Jr. will have a serious effect on this unit if it is serious as Jumper is not a long term solution at linebacker for the Vols.
Defensive Backs: B+
The defensive backfield limited any big plays from Virginia Tech and Isaiah Ford. Justin Martin had a rough evening with two pass interference calls. But Martin and Cam Sutton were solid in run defense all night and Rashaan Gaulden was excellent in run support and on several blitzes from the secondary. Micah Abernathy continues his solid play at safety. Gaulden and Abernathy will be tested against Florida in two weeks.
Special Teams: B
Opponents are effectively limiting Tennessee’s ability to change the game on special teams. Evan Berry didn’t have an opportunity to return a kickoff tonight and Cam Sutton was held in check returning punts. Aaron Medley was 1-for-2 on field goal attempts and Trevor Daniel had two short punts in the first quarter. He was, however, able to put Virginia Tech inside their own 20 several times in the second half. Daniel, once again, proved to be a valuable weapon for the Vols. Tennessee’s coverage units continue to have strong performances, including recovering a Hokie punt return fumble tonight.
Mike Debord will continue to get some heat for his play calling, but the offensive line play is really limiting his options. His scheme changes to help in pass protection will largely go unappreciated, but it was one of the key adjustments — if not THE key coaching adjustment of the game. Bob Shoop‘s defense gave up some big numbers tonight. With many other things from this game, those 21 first downs, third down conversion rate, and rushing numbers will be overlooked by the final score. But they won’t be overlooked by future opponents. Lastly, the Vols have looked calm and cool under stress and in the fourth quarter this year. Butch Jones has focused on that and it has showed in the first two games. The coaching staff is doing better than most are willing to give them credit for.
Wave the checkered flag, this one’s over!! pic.twitter.com/VlU2Z7RdCt
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) September 11, 2016
Next game: Ohio (Home), September 17th. Look for three things next week. Ohio is a fundamentally sound team. Head Coach Frank Solich is a former head coach at Nebraska and has 18 years of head coaching experience. Look for Tennessee to focus on offensive execution of a limited playbook. Also keep an eye on the offense line. Will the Tennessee coaches shuffle the starting line-up up front? And, as always with uneven match-ups, Tennessee will look to walk away healthy.
Overall, a lot of Bs to go around tonight. This game was much closer than the final score indicates. Virginia Tech’s five turnovers overshadowed their talent and how close they played the Vols for half the game. Tennessee should be happy with their performance, but there’s plenty of room for improvement going forward.