If you’ve got a weak ticker, then Tennessee isn’t the team for you. You’re too likely to have heart issues in the fall.
The Volunteers did it again in Week 1, struggling for long stretches vs. a pesky Georgia Tech squad before winning in double overtime. Even in hindsight, it’s hard to explain how they escaped Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a victory.
UT gave up 535 yards rushing — 249 to Yellow Jackets quarterback TaQuon Marshall alone — and were forced to defend 96 total plays. Keep in mind that coach Paul Johnson doesn’t operate a hurry-up scheme, which has become the norm in today’s college football. No, his flexbone system actually huddles. The Vols simply couldn’t get off the field.
Say what you will about coach Butch Jones, and he’s given us many opportunities to mock him, but his players never give up.
Indicative of that ideology was nickelback Rashaan Gaulden forcing a fumble on the tail end of a long run by Tech. Even a field goal would’ve made it a two-score affair late in the fourth quarter and likely iced it for the Jackets.
Running back John Kelly went on to score the game-tying touchdown — his second of three on the evening — with 1:29 left in the fourth quarter, and then Tennessee survived a potential game-winning field goal from Georgia Tech on the final snap of regulation. Luckily for Jones and Co., they’ve gotten used to overtime situations.
The Volunteers have played in OT a total of 20 times, more than any team at the FBS level since the format was introduced in 1996.
“It’s very, very unusual,” Jones said Wednesday on the weekly SEC coaches teleconference, “and I know that we spend a lot of time practicing overtime, whether it being spring football or training camp and all the nuances that go with managing the overtime situation.”
This is only Jones’s fifth season at the helm, yet Monday was his sixth overtime. He’s had at least one every year he’s been in Knoxville, including two during the 2016 campaign. UT hasn’t had an OT-less run since 2006.
It was the second opener in a row for the Vols that required overtime. Last year against Appalachian State, they trailed 13-3 in the third quarter before mounting a crazy comeback. Even the eventual deciding TD — Joshua Dobbs dove for the goal line, got crushed and fumbled, but Jalen Hurd recovered in the end zone — was a panic-inducing moment.
Jones didn’t have a great explanation for all the OT he’s been involved in lately, although teams from this conference do tend to get an opponent’s best shot.
“Obviously when you’re at Tennessee, as we all do in this conference, we play a very challenging schedule,” he said. “And then since we’ve been here, we played a very demanding and challenging non-conference schedule as well. But it’s just one of those things, and it’s very, very unusual. But that’s situational football, and I thought our players handled it very, very well.”
For the most part, Jones played Georgia Tech in overtime by the book. Tennessee scored a touchdown on each of its two possessions and kicked the extra point both times. A two-point conversion after the first one could’ve ended the game right then and there.
On the other hand, Johnson rolled the dice. With Marshall having so much success on the ground — he seemed to make the right decision on triple-option calls every single time — he trusted his freshman QB to find a way to paydirt from the 2-yard line. Instead, the Volunteers stuffed him between the tackles. Final score, 42-41.
According to Jones, while he always has a plan going into overtime, said plan doesn’t always make its way to the field.
“Some of it is your gut instinct,” he said. “Some of it is your feel. Some of it is the storylines of the game and how it’s playing out. And then from a schematically standpoint, it’s what’s working well, whichever red-zone play.”
UT finally wore Tech down offensively. Field general Quinten Dormady was increasingly effective as a passer. Kelly started to assert himself as an every-down back. Receiver Marquez Callaway starred in the absence of Josh Smith and Jauan Jennings.
To be fair, the Vols rarely had an answer for the Jackets’ relentless running attack. Marshall set school records for rushing attempts (49) and touchdowns (5), plus his aforementioned 249 yards on the ground are the most ever for an ACC signal caller. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson — the reigning Heisman Trophy winner — once had 226.
But Tennessee was the better team in OT. When the first 60 minutes of a ballgame result in a tie, nothing else matters.
“We have an overtime plan as well,” Jones said, “and I thought the coaches did a very good job through the time where you’re having the coin toss and all that of doing a great job of putting together a mini script and things that had worked in the red zone and things that we were doing particularly well at that moment in time.”
When Jones was trailing 28-14 a few minutes into the fourth quarter, it was fair to question his roster’s resolve after losing so much leadership from a year ago. Dormady looked nothing like Dobbs. Derek Barnett was badly missed on D, too.
Fortunately, the Dormady-to-Callaway connection — it really did come out of nowhere — delivered a few key plays down the stretch. Kelly had a career-high 24 touches and could be one of the league’s more versatile ball carriers. While the defense has a long way to go after such a dismal performance, nobody in the SEC employs a similar style.
And the Volunteers won’t quit. That much we know. No matter what it does to Rocky Top’s collective blood pressure.