As Tennessee players responded to Florida’s 63-yard, game-winning touchdown pass in a sort of dazed disbelief Saturday evening, Vols head coach Butch Jones was not quick to point the finger of blame on the miraculous play as time expired. Instead, he blamed “an accumulation of plays” for the Vols’ loss.
He’s right. And most of those plays accumulated in the red zone.
Tennessee’s offense, under first-year offensive coordinator Larry Scott, operated in the red zone with dazzling efficiency during the Vols’ wins over Georgia Tech and Indiana State. In those two games, Tennessee scored touchdowns on eight out of nine trips inside the 20-yard-line.
That changed in Saturday’s game. Tennessee had 13 snaps inside the red zone. The collective result? An unmitigated disaster.
The Vols’ red-zone meltdown was a result of poor quarterback play, poor composure by the offensive line and terrible coaching.
Let’s consider the latter first. The message Tennessee’s coaches sent on Saturday was this: Junior runningback John Kelly could run all over the field. But he wasn’t good enough to touch the ball inside the 20-yard-line.
Kelly looked like a Heisman Trophy hopeful, rushing for 141 yards while averaging over seven yards per carry and adding 96 yards on pass receptions.
But Kelly carried the ball on just one of those 13 snaps inside the red zone, resulting in one yard of offense.
Tennessee’s first trip to the red zone, midway through the third quarter, was a disaster. After handing the ball off to Kelly on first down — he picked up on yard — the Vols promptly went backwards. A holding penalty took the UT offense out of the red zone, and a third down sack of Quinten Dormady set up a 51-yard field goal attempt, which was missed.
The Vols’ second trip to the red zone, also in the third quarter, was even worse. After Dormady completed a third-and-19 pass to Marquez Callaway to set up a first-and-goal inside Florida’s one-yard-line, Tennessee turned in an array of coaching and quarterbacking decisions that left the UT fan base one part stunned and two parts incensed.
First, Jones stuck with his penchant for keeping his quarterback in the shotgun even in short-yardage situations. That’s as mind-boggling as it is infuriating, considering the Vols’ offense works with the quarterback under center in practice. It invites disaster, especially with defenses like Florida’s, which feature NFL talent in their front seven. Run blitzes become particularly effective, and Tennessee failed to convert a third-and-one on a run play from the shotgun earlier in the game.
Then, Tennessee attempted a pass play, a jump pass by Dormady to Callaway in the right side of the end zone, which was almost intercepted by two different Florida defenders. Callaway had to play defense on the play to break up the pass and prevent the pick.
It was a terrible decision by Dormady, but Tennessee was granted a reprieve by Florida’s Chauncey Gardner. He taunted Callaway after the play, resulting in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That moved the ball a foot closer to the goal line and gave Tennessee a new first down.
Given the fresh breath of life, Tennessee stayed in the shotgun. Jack Jones jumped early, resulting in a five-yard penalty.
Tennessee still didn’t go back to the ground. Instead, Dormady again forced a pass, which was incomplete.
On second down, Tennessee threw a screen pass to Kelly, which resulted in a one-yard loss.
Then Dormady forced the ball into coverage again, resulting in an interception at the one-yard-line and a meltdown by Vol Network color commentator Tim Priest.
An opportunity for Tennessee to take a 10-6 lead resulted in no points.
Somehow, some way, the Vols survived. Even after a pick-six by the Florida defense, Tennessee responded with a 34-yard touchdown run by Kelly. (Apparently he was good enough to score from outside the 30 but not from inside the one.) Then, after Florida finally scored its first touchdown of the season, the Vols came back with a touchdown pass from Dormady to Ethan Wolfe.
An interception later, Tennessee found itself back inside the Florida red zone with an opportunity to win the game.
First, the Vols were flagged for a false start. Then they were flagged for another false start. Both were on Jack Jones, who ran his red zone false start total to three.
Then, since the ball was outside the red zone, Tennessee felt comfortable calling Kelly’s number. The run, and a resulting face mask penalty, gave the Vols a first-and-goal at Florida’s nine-yard-line.
Given the down and distance, and the fact that 1:06 remained on the clock with overtime being the worst-case scenario for Tennessee, the options were obvious: pass the ball.
Dormady threw three straight incompletions, allowing Jones to trot on Aaron Medley for the game-tying field goal. Four plays, no yards, 16 seconds off the clock.
That worst-case scenario shifted. Because Tennessee didn’t keep the ball on the ground, the Vols left 50 seconds on the clock for Florida. Even after some mind-boggling clock mismanagement by Gators head coach Jim McElwain — who was trying his best to out-do his counterpart on the opposite sideline — Florida had enough time for the game-winning play.
And if you’re keeping count at home, Tennessee’s red zone woes can be summed up like this: 13 snaps, one run for one yard, seven passes that resulted in one completion for a one-yard loss and one interception, and five penalties.
That “accumulation of plays” went a long way towards contributing to the Vols’ defeat. If Tennessee used the same offensive approach inside the 20-yard-line as it used on the other 80 yards of greensward, the Vols probably win by multiple possessions. Instead, Kelly went MIA as Tennessee’s coaches tried extra-hard to prove that their fancy-schmancy offense would cut it in short, goal-to-goal situations.
Tennessee fans are quick to blame Scott, but let’s be fair. The same complaints were heard during the Vols’ loss to Oklahoma in 2015, and Mike DeBord was the offensive coordinator back then. And the same complaints were heard during Tennessee’s loss to Florida in 2014, and Mike Bajakian was offensive coordinator at that point. When your team has gone through three offensive coordinators and your complaints about the offense are unchanged, it’s time to realize that the offense is Butch Jones’, and the buck stops with him.
That accumulation of plays included some bone-headed mistakes by offensive linemen, and some bad decisions by a first-year starter at quarterback. But mostly they were the fault of some awful coaching.
If Jones is going to fix that problem and save his job, he has to first own the problem and not be too stubborn to admit that his approach isn’t cutting it. But if he’s too stubborn to simply hand the ball off to one of the SEC’s best runningbacks when he’s two feet away from the goal line, chances are he’s just too stubborn.