Tennessee must execute for four quarters at Texas A&M, not just a half
Tennessee is 5-0 and atop the East, but the Volunteers keep flying awfully close to the sun with all these slow starts.
They trailed Appalachian State 13-3 in Week 1, Virginia Tech 14-0 in Week 2, Florida 21-0 in Week 4 and Georgia 17-0 in Week 5. Right in the middle, UT only led Ohio 21-19 through three quarters in Week 3.
The Vols eventually survived the Mountaineers in overtime. They blew the doors off the Hokies with a 24-0 second quarter. The Bobcats were finally put away with a touchdown in the fourth. A 35-0 second-half run shocked the Gators. Then this past Saturday, a 28-7 stretch gave them their first lead on the Bulldogs.
Fourth-year coach Butch Jones can’t risk his team stumbling out of the blocks yet again in Week 6 at Kyle Field.
Texas A&M, No. 8 in the AP Poll, is playing a brand of football not conducive to comebacks. The Aggies can burn the clock with their running game and sack the quarterback with their pass rush.
Tennessee, ranked No. 9, has made a lot of big plays in key moments to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in 2016. Nevertheless, the Volunteers have been carrying around a rabbit’s foot, too. Virginia Tech fumbled five times. Florida went crazy conservative in the second half. Georgia couldn’t knock down a Hail Mary.
A&M is second in the SEC in rushing and third in sacks. When the Aggies build a lead, they tend to keep it.
The season opener against UCLA was an exception. Texas A&M was up 24-9 through three periods, but the Bruins scored 15 points in the fourth to force OT. Fortunately for the Aggies, they prevailed in the extra frame 31-24.
Ever since, A&M has shown a killer instinct. Prairie View got shut out by the Aggies 67-0. Auburn was behind at halftime 16-10 but got neutralized in a 29-16 defeat. Arkansas trailed 24-17 after three yet were still blown out 45-24. South Carolina was down 14-10 at intermission but never closed the gap in a 24-13 loss.
Aside from that 43-yard answered prayer as time expired against Georgia, Tennessee again struggled to throw the ball vertically.
“There’s times we called plays that had opportunities to be big plays down the field, but what Georgia did in that game was they changed their coverage,” said offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, according to 247Sports. “They played a lot of Cover-3, 3-deep against us, and they hadn’t done that all year. They’d either been a quarters team or a man team. They were saying, ‘We’re not gonna give you these big shots.'”
Dobbs, who has simply refused to lose in the second half, isn’t nearly as effective in the first 30 minutes. There is plenty of blame to go around, even if the senior QB has thrown six interceptions in five games.
The Volunteers are only eighth in the league in rushing offense, which is a surprise to say the least. Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara form one of the nation’s premier one-two punches at the tailback position. Averaging just 4.1 yards per carry as a team, 12th in the SEC, the offensive line has been a sore spot.
UT receivers keep getting the dropsies early, but then late they grab everything in sight. Such was the case in Athens.
“We executed better again,” DeBord said. “We’re still trying to put it all together, though.”
The Vols took their first lead on the Dawgs when defensive end Derek Barnett (below) sacked Jacob Eason in the end zone and forced a fumble. Fellow pass rusher Corey Vereen pounced on it for a 28-24 edge with 2:56 remaining.
Eason, a true freshman, responded with one of the more impressive throws you’ll ever see. From the right hash mark at midfield, he fired a laser to the left pylon into Riley Ridley’s bread basket for a 47-yard score with 10 seconds left.
Vols cornerback Malik Foreman underestimated Eason’s arm, slowing down a bit and giving Ridley just the slightest separation.
“I think there’s that clock that goes off in a DB’s head that says, ‘OK, the quarterback must be scrambling. Something must’ve happened,'” said defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. “And I think it went off for that split-second, and then, all of a sudden, he recognized the ball was in the air and he kept running.”
The last-second miracle from Dobbs to Jauan Jennings one snap later got Foreman off the hook. A corner can’t allow a streaking wideout to get behind him in that situation, and yet there was Ridley in the open.
Texas A&M signal caller Trevor Knight might not have a Howitzer attached to his right shoulder like Eason does, but the Aggies are deeper and more dangerous in the receiving corps than UGA. Christian Kirk, Speedy Noil, Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones and Jeremy Tabuyo are all more productive than the likes of Ridley.
Foreman isn’t entirely to blame. There wasn’t a safety to be found, either. But A&M will capitalize on a similar mistake.
“It is what it is, and we’re very fortunate to come out with a win,” Shoop said. “And hindsight’s 20-20. He should’ve had help over the top. We were a little out of position at the safety position, as well.”
Tennessee better play a first half Saturday resembling some of its second halves. That rabbit’s foot has been rubbed raw.