Tennessee football: A surprising key to Vols resurgence
Boy, did the Tennessee Volunteers look good on Saturday afternoon in the first half against South Carolina.
Offense? The Vols picked up right where they left off after their historic beatdown of Missouri 7 days previous. UT scored touchdowns on its first 4 possessions against the Gamecocks, and recorded points in 6 of the opening 7 possessions.
Quarterback Hendon Hooker looked like the second coming of Heath Shuler. Almost all of his 291 total yards of offense again the Gamecocks came in the opening 30 minutes. He threw 3 touchdown passes and ran for a score in the first quarter.
Tennessee was without injured running back Jabari Small for this game, but the Vols still produced on the ground. Ti’yon Evans scored on a 45-yard touchdown run in the second quarter to extend the lead to 35-0.
The Vols didn’t give up the football once, making it 3 straight games without a turnover.
The Vols accounted for 373 yards of total offense in that opening half against South Carolina. During the Jeremy Pruitt/Jim Chaney/Jarrett Guarantano era, that would have been a very good number for an entire game.
Defensively? The Vols were dominant in the first 2 quarters, giving up no points and only 116 yards of total offense in South Carolina’s opening 6 drives. The Vols forced 2 turnovers, which led to 14 Tennessee points, putting a stranglehold on the game. In addition, defensive lineman Matthew Butler sacked South Carolina quarterback Luke Doty twice.
This was a performance that new College Football Hall of Famer Al Wilson surely loved. Wilson, whose name is at the top of any discussion for the most impactful Tennessee players of the modern era, was on hand Saturday. He led the Vol Walk, was honored at halftime and spoke to the team in the locker room after the game.
Wilson is best remembered for his performance in the 1998 Florida game, in which he forced three fumbles and willed the Vols to an overtime victory on their way to a 13-0 season and a national championship.
Tennessee has lacked players of Wilson’s caliber for a long time. He was one of the rare athletes that played hard for 60 minutes, no matter the opponent.
But it’s certainly not fair to compare Wilson and the 1990s Vols to the present Tennessee squad.
When Wilson left the game to get a breather, the Vols had lots of other NFL caliber talent ready to go. The current Vols simply don’t have that luxury when its starters take a break.
And that was what we saw in the second half against South Carolina. The Vols offense went 3 and out on its first 2 possessions, and only gained 26 yards the next 2 times they touched the football. Each of those 4 drives ended in punts. While that was going on, South Carolina scored 2 touchdowns, one on a 15-play, 80-yard drive. That turned a 38-7 halftime laugher into a 38-20 contest.
Now, the outcome was never really in doubt. The Vols were draining the clock. Their hurry-up offense was more deliberate and the defense let the Gamecocks operate in the middle of the field, making sure that the minutes continued to tick away.
Tennessee is 4-2, which is better than a lot of folks might have expected heading into the 2021 season. A bowl game, which looked unlikely after the loss to Pittsburgh, is becoming more of a reality.
But if the Vols want to get to 7 or 8 wins, they can’t have second-half performances like this one. The rest of the schedule (except for games against South Alabama and Vanderbilt) doesn’t allow them the luxury of coasting, like they did against the Gamecocks.
That said, if the Vols find a way to play a complete game, they’ll be a tough out the rest of the way.