Published October 10, 2011 - 2:25pm
NEW: Discuss this topic in the Google+ community for SEC fans.
Most reasonable observers, including Barbara Dooley, agree that second-year Tennessee Head Coach Derek Dooley is not on the “hot seat” but if there is a seat for frustration it might be getting a little crowded, as Dooley may have to share that seat with a few hundred thousand members of the Volnation. In the progression of temperment, frustration occurs a couple of notches before one gets angry or in this case, let’s say hot. So while Dooley may not technically be on the hot seat, the natives of the Volunteer state were certainly hoping for more than this season has produced and are growing increasingly anxious as improvement seems to be measured by the inch and not the yard.
Saturday night in Knoxville before a capacity crowd of 102,455, Mark Richt’s Georgia Bulldogs (4-2, 3-1 SEC) came in needing a win to stay in the mix for the top spot in the SEC East. Tennessee (3-2, 0-2 SEC) had the same opportunity, win and contend. One team looked up to the challenge, and that team was Georgia.
The two teams played well in the first half connecting for two field goals each. Despite a 6-6 score at the half, it seemed as if the Vols should’ve had the lead, and they would have if not for another missed field goal by troubled place-kicker Michael Palardy who missed his first attempt of 51-yards.
The bright spot for Tennessee in the first half was the play of the defense, who held Mike Bobo’s offensive unit out of the end-zone and forced the Bulldogs to convert twice on fourth down chances on their opening drive that ended in a Blair Walsh field goal. But the fact that Richt was going for it on fourth down and converting at will also made a statement: Georgia was not afraid of the Tennessee defense. On the night, all in the first half, Georgia went for it on fourth down on three occasions and cashed in every time.
The Vols were holding serve and got the ball to open the second half. Their disastrous opening third quarter drive would set the tone for their second half demise. Marlin Lane rushed on first down and was tackled for a two-yard loss. On second down, Bray connected with freshman receiver DeAnthony Arnett for a four-yard gain, setting up a third-and-eight from the UT 22-yard line. On third down, converted left-handed to right-handed center, James Stone snapped the ball over the head of Bray and the Vol’s quarterback was able to cover the loose ball on the seven yard line. Matt Darr, who otherwise had a good night punting, picked an inopportune time for his worst boot of the night that sailed just 31 yards.
Georgia took full advantage of the short field opportunity and nine plays later, Isaiah Crowell found pay-dirt from a yard out to give Georgia a lead they would never relinquish. Georgia’s next offensive series began at their own seven yard line but it didn’t take long for quarterback Aaron Murray, who was fearlessly swinging for the fences all night, to connect with Malcolm Mitchell for a 71-yard bomb that set up Georgia’s final score. The Bulldogs held a commanding lead 20-6 late in the the third quarter.
The score would remain the same until Tennessee’s last offensive possession in the fourth quarter, and it was on that drive when the Vols would see another one of their star players forced out of the game with an injury. This time it was quarterback Tyler Bray. After releasing a pass that was caught by Marlin Lane for a six yard gain, Bray’s right hand came crashing down hard on the helmet of a Georgia defender. Bray in obvious discomfort remained in the game for one more play but voluntarily came out after his next pass floated wildly with little velocity or direction.
Matt Simms came of the bench in emergency mode and converted two fourth down attempts to keep the drive alive, eventually scoring on a quarterback keeper to pull the Vols back to within striking distance.
Still with a shot at a comeback, the kicking game failed the Vols once again as Palardy’s try was kicked low and blocked by the Bulldogs. Tennessee trailed 20-12 and set up to attempt an on-side kick. Palardy’s kick went out of bounds and Georgia milked the clock before punting the ball away to the Vols, leaving just 18 seconds on the game clock. Tennessee could make no yardage as time ran out.
On offense, the song remained the same, all Bray or no way, as the Volunteers are quickly becoming the laughing stock of not just the SEC, but the nation, in their attempt to run the ball. Running back Tauren Poole’s night was cut short after suffering a hamstring injury in the early going and freshman Marlin Lane was called upon to carry the load. Neither back was effective as Poole gained seven yards on seven carries and Lane had similar results. It’s hard to imagine the Vols could do any worse than the minus-9 yard performance turned in at The Swamp a few weeks back, but they did. Adding in quarterback losses, the Vols amassed a combined minus-20 yards of net-rushing. What was once the hallmark of Tennessee football, “pound the rock,” in the past two seasons has become a bad joke and the punchline is, it continues to get worse, not better. The new slogan might just as well be “drop the rock,” as the Vols have now fumbled 18 times on the season and amazingly enough have recovered all but four. After Saturday night, the Vols are now ranked number 114 out of 120 FBS teams. Only six teams in all of college football have worse rushing offenses than Tennessee and with LSU, Alabama and South Carolina up next, it may get even worse. In case you’re wondering, those teams are Rutgers, Kent State, Arizona, Miami (OH), Idaho and East Carolina.
Bray played well but was not his usual self and looked out of sync at times and his frustration level was clearly visible on the field. The sophomore completed 18-of-33 attempts for 251 yards, and his 10-game streak of throwing at least two touchdown passes came to an abrupt end. More importantly, the injury to his thumb on his throwing hand forced him out of the game on Tennessee’s last offensive drive. The results of Bray’s x-rays confirmed what he and many already believed, his right thumb is broken and the star-quarterback is expected to miss four to six weeks.
So with Bray out of the picture for the time being, who will Dooley and Tennessee turn to at the critical position of quarterback? Enter last year’s early season starter Matt Simms, who will take over as the Volunteer’s signal-caller just in time for a three-game stretch that includes three of the NCAA’s Top 10 teams in total defense – LSU – 5th ; Alabama – 3rd ; and South Carolina – 9th. Throw in Georgia at number 6 in total defense and the Vols will face four of the NCAA’s Top 10 defenses in consecutive weeks. Perhaps that’s precisely what Dooley was referring to in post-game when he said, “Nobody is going to feel sorry for Tennessee.”
The Vols have an unforgiving schedule remaining for the rest of the month. They are without their top play-maker in Justin Hunter who suffered a season-ending injury in the Florida game. They have the seventh worst ground game in the nation and the status of their number one running back, Tauren Poole, is uncertain. And now, on top of all that, have no choice but to call on their back-up quarterback, Matt Simms, who struggled woefully last season. Just when the Big Orange faithful thought the clouds had begun to part and bluer skies were on the horizon, all of a sudden it’s getting darker around Knoxville and it’s all about to get rockier, or dare I say hotter, on Rocky Top.