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VOL. 41 | NO. 38 | Friday, September 22, 2017

Win vs. Georgia now needed to save Vols' season

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Tennessee coach Butch Jones has been drawing the ire of Vols fans this week after Tennessee lost – for the seventh consecutive time – at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, despite the Gators having nine players suspended for the contest.

-- Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

It’s been a long week for Tennessee football. UT’s Sept. 30 game against Georgia at Neyland Stadium can’t get here soon enough. Not after the Vols’ 26-20 loss to Florida last Saturday in Gainesville.

Tennessee found another way, a stunning, painful way, to lose its seventh straight game at The Swamp – on the last play of the game.

Before the Georgia game, UT (2-1, 0-1 SEC) gets a non-conference tune-up Saturday at noon EDT against Massachusetts (0-4) at Neyland Stadium (TV: SEC Network) before another SEC East showdown against No. 11-ranked Georgia.

“We all hurt,” UT coach Butch Jones said Monday at his weekly press conference. “We’re angry. We’re pissed. All of the above, but now it’s what you make of it. How do you become better because of this? Sometimes there’s situations like this that you suffer the adversities of a long football season, it can also galvanize you. It can bring you closer together as a football team.”

UMass is merely a primer for another game that will define UT’s season. Only a win over Georgia (3-0, 0-0 SEC) will numb the loss against No. 20 Florida (1-1, 1-0).

It was another nightmarish departure from Gainesville for the Vols. Nine seconds were left with the game tied 20-20. Florida was on its 37-yard line. Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks scrambled out of the pocket, avoiding a sack, as wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland ran past UT cornerback Justin Martin and beat safeties Nigel Warrior and Micah Abernathy to make the winning 63-yard TD catch in the end zone.

UT employed a four-man front with all the linemen chasing Franks. Nine defenders were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, expecting a mid-range pass and potential Florida field goal.

“They had one time out left, there was nine seconds to go in the game, and they have a very, very talented field-goal kicker (Eddy Pineiro),” Jones added. “They were going to try to get the ball in the middle of the field and throw a dig route, call time out and try to attempt the game-winning field goal.”

Instead, the Gators got a play like their game-winner against the Vols in 2015, when Will Grier threw a 63-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Callaway with 1 minute, 26 seconds left in a 28-27 victory.

“(Saturday’s play) was actually very similar to the same play in 2015,” Jones said. “They had a shorter dig route. They had a deeper dig route, and then an out-and-up (route) and a vertical clear (route). And the thing we can’t do is where the play broke down, is we let the quarterback escape the pocket. We wanted to be in a four-man rush so we could contain the quarterback.”

UT’s blown coverage on the last play overshadowed an otherwise solid performance by UT defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and his group.

You can’t say the same for offensive coordinator Larry Scott and his side. UT fans spent all week blasting the Vols’ play-calling in the red zone and the lack of run plays.

The Vols were one for three inside Florida’s 20-yard line – and the ‘1’ came on Aaron Medley’s 27-yard field goal with 50 seconds left to tie the game at 20-20.

Medley’s field goal came after UT had first and goal at the 9, and on first down, Quinten Dormady’s pass amid pressure was underthrown and dropped by tailback John Kelly. Dormady then threw two more incompletions.

“I know (Vol fans) are upset, just like we’re upset,” receiver Marquez Callaway said after Saturday’s loss at Florida. The Vols appeared to be headed to overtime with momentum when disaster struck.

-- Photo By Austin Perryman/Tennessee Athletics

“On the first-down call, we had practiced that play all week,” Jones explained. “Bottom line, we didn’t execute it. Second down, we tried to get the ball in the hands of our playmakers. That’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to be aggressive, and we were going for the win.”

It wasn’t Tennessee’s biggest red-zone gaffe.

Trailing 6-3 in the third, the Vols had first and goal at Florida’s 1-yard line. Dormady threw incomplete on first down, and Florida was assessed an unsportsmanlike call, moving the ball to the half-yard line for another first down.

However, Dormady came out of the game with a tweaked knee, and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano entered. UT’s Jack Jones was called for a false start, moving the Vols back to the 5. Dormady re-entered and threw two incompletions – the first was dropped by freshman Josh Palmer in the end zone – before throwing an interception to Duke Dawson at the one.

Jones said a run play was called on first down at the one, but Dormady audibled to a pass play when he saw Florida’s defense.

“Would we have liked to have run the football there? Absolutely,” Jones said. “And then the plan was on second down to get underneath center and do a quarterback sneak, or run the football outside, and Quinten tweaks his knee, and we didn’t think it was fair for Jarrett to have to go in the game and do an underneath center snap when he didn’t have time to practice the underneath center snap.

“There’s a lot of nuances that occurred through the course of those two plays, but make no mistake about it. We get the ball down there, we need to run the football and we need to score touchdowns.”

UT’s play-calling was a hot topic on message boards and sports talk radio all week. So was another blown chance to win at The Swamp against an average Florida team playing without nine suspended players.

Sophomore receiver Marquez Callaway says the Vols are aware of the criticism surrounding Jones and his staff.

“Well, we can’t let that affect us,” Callaway added. “We see it. Of course, we see it. It’s just something that we have to not invest and listen to it. We know our staff and our team is one whole (unit), and we know the fans. They’re always going to love us. I know they’re upset, just like we’re upset.”

Yes, UT’s fans feel like the Vols after the Florida loss. They’re “pissed,” too.

Matchups to watch

UT QBs vs. UMass secondary

The Vols need to get Guarantano snaps on Saturday. Lots of them.

Dormady appears to have secured the No. 1 job, but his three interceptions against Florida were beyond costly. He also threw an interception early in the fourth quarter that was returned 16 yards by C.J. Henderson for touchdown and 13-3 lead.

Callaway took the blame for the pick-6.

“It was just bad execution on our part as on offense,” he said. “It was a hitch route. I ran it too far deep, and the quarterback (Dormady) threw a good pass, and I just couldn’t come down with it. It was something that won’t happen again.”

Dormady finished 21-of-39 passing for 259 yards and a touchdown – a 28-yarder to tight end Ethan Wolf that pulled the Vols to within 20-17 in the fourth quarter.

“The quarterback is always a byproduct of individuals around him,” Jones explained, “and we had way too many missed assignments out on the perimeter. That was one of the disappointing things.

“I think where Quinten has to continue to improve on, he can’t compile a mistake and a missed assignment or a mental error and compile it by trying to make up for that missed assignment. That comes with growth and maturation.”

Guarantano played three series in UT’s win over Indiana State on Sept. 9 and was 4-of-12 for 41 yards. Not a great showing, but he’s clearly the Vols’ backup.

Tennessee tight end Austin Pope evades a Florida tackler during last week’s game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville.

-- Photo By Austin Perryman/Tennessee Athletics

Saturday’s a good chance. UMass is giving up 414.2 total yards per game – 187.2 yards rushing and 227.0 yards passing.

Ford vs. Vols’ secondary

Junior Andrew Ford is in his second season as UMass’ starting quarterback and has been one of the few positives for the Minutemen this year.

Ford has thrown for 1,204 yards (301.4 yards per game) with six touchdowns and one interception. He’s completing 64.3 percent of his passes.

In last Friday’s 29-21 loss at Temple (2-1), Ford was 23-of-37 for 377 yards and two touchdowns (no interceptions), but was sacked eight times.

Other than the monumental breakdown on Florida’s last play, the Vols’ secondary had a decent day in Gainesville. Franks completed 18-of-28 passes for 212 yards, and Cleveland’s game-winning TD catch accounted for more than a fourth of the Gators’ passing yardage. It was Florida’s only completion that was caught after 10 yards in the air.

UT nickel back Rashaan Gaulden had an interception off a tipped pass. Martin saved a touchdown in the fourth quarter with a forced fumble as Malik Davis was about to cross the goal line.

But Florida’s final play will overshadow the Vols’ secondary play.

Breneman vs. Vols’ ‘D’

UMass boasts one of the nation’s top pass-catchers in senior tight end Adam Breneman, who played his first two years at Penn State.

Breneman had nine catches for 126 yards in a loss to Coastal Carolina on Sept. 2, and despite leaving the game due to injury in the third quarter, returned the next week against Old Dominion.

Breneman, 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, has 24 catches for 369 yards (15.4-yard average) this season, but has no TD catches. Last year, Breneman led all FBS tight ends with 70 catches and was second in total yards (808) and TDs (eight) through the end of the regular season.

Noteworthy

Injury update

Injuries continue to mount for the Vols.

Senior safety Todd Kelly Jr. missed the Florida game with a knee injury that could end his season. The former Webb School of Knoxville star led the Vols in tackles last year despite playing with an undisclosed left knee injury suffered in 2016 fall camp. He had an MRI last Thursday and was awaiting a second opinion earlier in the week.

“I would say he’s out indefinitely,” Jones said of Kelly.

Starting linebacker Cortez McDowell suffered a wrist injury against Florida and is out for the rest of the season.

Jones said McDowell’s injury is similar to the wrist injury sustained by top receiver Jauan Jennings, who was hurt in the 42-41 double-overtime win over Georgia Tech in the season opener.

“Jauan is out for the season,” Jones noted. “Very, very unfortunate.”

UT also lost starting offensive tackle Chance Hall to a lingering knee injury that required surgery in the preseason.

Not-so-special teams

Tennessee freshman Brent Cimaglia made a 51-yard field goal, but missed the next time from 51 yards and missed again from 47 yards.

UT senior Medley, who’s been the starter since his freshman year, made the 27-yarder, but missed a 44-yarder.

It appears UT’s coaches have opted to use Cimaglia on long field-goal attempts; Medley entered the season nine of 20 from 40-49 yards and zero for five from beyond 50 yards with a career-long of 47 against Vanderbilt in 2015.

Cimaglia had a career-long of 47 yards at Page High in Franklin and pushed Medley for the starting job in preseason.

UT senior Trevor Daniel, one of the top punters in the SEC, averaged 45 yards on three kicks against Florida, but shanked one punt for 34 yards.

Callaway was a bright spot for the Vols’ special teams, returning a punt 28 yards, but UT didn’t get a chance for a kickoff return. Pineiro booted all five kickoffs into the end zone.

About UMASS

UMass also has losses to Hawaii (38-35), Coastal Carolina (38-28) and Old Dominion (17-7) this season.

The Minutemen are in their fifth season as an FBS program and are not in a conference. UMass won the Division I-AA national championship in 1998.

Eye on Georgia, SEC

Georgia (3-0) has a much tougher matchup than the Vols on Saturday. The Bulldogs play host to Mississippi State in their SEC opener after starting the season with victories over Appalachian State, Notre Dame, and Samford.

Mississippi State (3-0, 1-0) is coming off a 37-7 victory over LSU in Starkville, Mississippi, a crucial SEC West game as contenders chase top-ranked Alabama.

The SEC East, meanwhile, is wide open.

In preseason, Georgia was picked by SEC media to win the East with Florida second, Tennessee third, South Carolina fourth and Kentucky fifth. If the Vols lose to Georgia, their chances of winning the East are slim to none.

Kentucky (3-0, 1-0) posted a 23-13 victory last Saturday against South Carolina (2-1, 101) in Columbia. Vanderbilt (3-0) upset Kansas State 14-7 Saturday in Nashville.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.