Four quick takes on an ugly win

Rob Lewis, Associate Editor
Vol Quest
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It wasn’t pretty, but Tennessee managed to squeak by UMASS 17-13 this afternoon in Neyland Stadium. Here are four quick takeaways from the game.

1 — What to make of the offense? — I don’t know but at the risk of being hyper critical, they looked sluggish for most of the day against a UMASS team that has been giving up 414 yards per game to some low level competition.

Neither the Vols nor Quentin Dormady ever found anything approaching a rhythm today. This was a one possession football game going into the fourth quarter which should be concerning for everyone with a rooting interest in Tennessee.

Was it a Florida hangover? The noon kickoff? Guys looking ahead to Georgia? I don’t know the answer but Tennessee didn’t look like a team that was excited about playing football today from my perspective.

It wasn’t just the quarterback play either. Tennessee struggled to run the ball for much of the game against a defense that two weeks ago surrendered 391 yards to Coastal Carolina.

The Vols were missing Jashon Robertson up front today but that doesn’t explain away the struggles we saw on the ground from a team that ran all over Florida in the second half last week.

John Kelly finished his day with 25 carries for 101 yards with a long of 27 one week after he thrust himself into the national spotlight against the Gators. Personally, I think that’s far too much work for Kelly against an opponent like the one Tennessee faced today, but hey, that’s just my opinion. Certainly the argument could be made that the Vols didn’t have the luxury of resting him.

Fans got their wish when Butch Jones inserted Jarrett Guarantano into the game late in the third quarter. He flashed some obvious talent, was hurt by a bad drop, but didn’t manage to lead the offense to a first down in two series of action.

Maybe the best thing I saw today, outside of Brandon Johnson, was the fact that Tyler Byrd finally got involved in things. Byrd snagged a touchdown on Dormday’s best throw of the day and also had a big third down catch late in the fourth quarter as the Vols were running the clock out.

Just an ugly day for the offense against what’s been a shoddy UMASS defense and perhaps not a great sign with Georgia coming to town next weekend.

2 — Good day for the defense — In what was mostly a ho-hum performance I thought the defense at least handled its business today. UMASS has shown that it can score some points and move the ball, especially through the air. Tennessee largely throttled that offense today.

Some may disagree but with the exception of two drives, I thought Bob Shoop’s guys were on point most of the afternoon.

Tennessee held UMASS to just 281 yards of total offense and limited them to 3-of-13 on third down.

The Vols got consistent pressure on quarterback Andrew Ford and knocked him out of the game late in the third quarter. Kyle Phillips was one defensive linemen who flashed on several occasions.

Tennessee finished the day with six sacks from five different players.

At linebacker it was a great day to get sophomores Daniel Bituli and Quart’e Sapp some work and that’s what Shoop did. The duo played the bulk of the snaps on defense, and while they weren’t perfect by any means, their speed and athleticism showed up repeatedly.

Sapp led the Vols with nine tackles.

In the secondary Shaq Wiggins finally came out of hiding and played extensively at corner. At first glance Wiggins looked effective and in position during his time on the field.

One negative in the second half was a 42 yard run UMASS ripped off that put some real drama into the fourth quarter before the defense forced a punt. That was just another example of what Shoop has been lamenting with this group, the tendency to give up ‘catastrophic’ big plays. That one didn’t turn out to be catastrophic.

In a game that was much closer than anyone anticipated the defense came through in the fourth quarter to help the Vols avoid what would have been a monumental upset.

3 — Brandon Johnson — In a young receiving corps that’s still looking for playmakers in the wake of Jauan Jennings’ season ending injury Brandon Johnson stepped up today to mark himself as someone to watch.

Johnson finished the day with career highs in catches and yards, pulling in seven balls for 123 yards, including a 66-yard catch and run to set up Tennessee’s first touchdown. He had one clear drop or the numbers would have been even better.

Johnson draws high praise from his coaches for his work ethic and attention to detail. That’s starting to show up on the field. He’s a crisp route runner and looks really polished for a sophomore.

He also looks like a guy that Dormady has a lot of confidence in. Johnson was targeted eight times today, no one else was targeted more than three times.

Marquez Callaway has stamped himself as a game breaker but Johnson looks like he may turn into the kind of consistent producer that quarterbacks fall in love with.

4 — What to make of that? — Coming on the heels of last week’s disaster at Florida this wasn’t exactly an inspiring win. It wasn’t a performance that’s going to inspire a lot of confidence with Georgia coming to town next week, in fact it was pretty much the exact opposite.

Yes, I understand that it can be tough to get up for a game like this sandwiched in between two monumental SEC games like Florida and Georgia, but does that explain away one of the more lackluster performances we’ve seen lately?

I tend to lean towards writing this one off as just a bad day at the office, but we’ll see if that’s being too kind in a week. It’s hard to look past the fact that UMASS could have easily won this football game though, 0-4 UMASS. Had the Vols not knocked out the Minutmen’s starting quarterback, things may have played out much differently.

Probably my most concrete takeaway from this game concerns the quarterbacks.

Quarterback play is a problem right now and there’s no denying it. Dormady hasn’t seemed to make a great deal of progress from the opener and as talented as Guarantano looks, it seems obvious that he’s not quite ready just yet.

Dormady finished his day 17-for-27 for 184 yards and one score. He also lost a fumble, giving him six turnovers on the year (four interceptions, two lost fumbles). Guarantano was 2-of-5 for -3 yards.

The Vols’ simply have to get better play out of that position if they have any hope of competing in the SEC.

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