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Tennessee vs. Massachusetts: 10 things

Photo: UTSports.com

1.) Sweet mercy

There were two merciful developments at Neyland Stadium this afternoon. The formation of cumulus clouds that began to block out the sun in the second half (that was a miserably hot game for late September). And the final kneeldown that killed the remaining fourth quarter clock and enabled the few remaining fans to head for the exits.

That game was every bit as bad as any Tennessee game in recent memory. It was a terrible effort against a terrible team.

2.) Butch Jones’ hot seat

It isn’t often, even in subpar efforts, that a coach’s seat gets warmer in a win, but today’s game proved that the Tennessee fan base is flat-out disgusted with this team’s play. Boos rained down from Neyland Stadium throughout the first half, and the UT student section even began a “Fire Butch” chant.

Thee have been some writers on the Tennessee beat who have worked overtime this past week to create a narrative that Jones is not on the hot seat. Clearly, that is not true. It wasn’t true before today’s game, and it certainly isn’t true after today’s game. This is a fanbase that is discontented. And a discontented fanbase is certainly a factor to any coach’s days becoming numbered. When attendance starts to decline, the suits in the front office have decisions to make. Tennessee isn’t to the point of seeing its attendance start to decline, but that’s coming if the product on the field doesn’t improve.

And I think we saw that playing out today. The bottom line is the heat was a primary factor in the crowd’s disappearing act at Neyland Stadium this afternoon. But the fact remains that Tennessee was four points ahead with plenty of time remaining and the crowd was headed for the exits.

It was a great crowd at Neyland Stadium, all things considered. Coming off a disheartening loss, playing an awful opponent with a noon start, all the ingredients were in place for a lot of empty seats. Many prognosticators assumed attendance would be as low as 80,000 to 85,000. But announced attendance was 95,324, and that wasn’t much of an exaggeration. By the second half, not so much so. It was easy to look into the north end zone upper deck and tell where the shade line was, even when the sun was behind the clouds. The seats in the lower portion were vacated, while many folks were still in their seats beneath the overhang. So, yes, the weather was a contributing factor. But you come to a game, it’s very much on the line, and you leave without knowing who’s going to win? That’s dissatisfaction, and it’s going to carry over . . . especially if Tennessee loses to Georgia next week.

3.) Terrible quarterback play

Quinten Dormady finished 17 of 27 for 187 yards and a touchdown. Not bad numbers, really. But he made some awful decisions, and continued his penchant for back-foot throws, which cost him dearly at Florida and will continue to cost him against good defenses moving forward.

Dormady’s play certainly seemed to warrant an appearance by Jarrett Guarantano . . . but Guarantano’s play showed why Dormady is the starter on this football team.

Dormady looked serviceable in wins over Georgia Tech and Indiana State. But at this point it looks as though neither of Tennessee’s quarterbacks are poised to lead this team to an SEC East championship.

4.) A lackluster running game

John Kelly got to 100 yards today, but it took him 25 touches to do so (he finished 101 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries, averaging 4.0 yards per carry). Kelly had some yards after contact, which is his hallmark, but if he didn’t seem to play with the same explosiveness he showed in the first three games of the season (especially at Florida last week), it was mostly because he was taking a beating.

Given how heavily Tennessee relies on Kelly, you have to be concerned about whether he can make it through 12 games with his health intact. His offensive line isn’t doing him a lot of favors.

Speaking of the offensive line, they got some nice push at times today, but still allowed way too much penetration by UMass’s front seven. We thought it was inexcusable two weeks ago when Indiana State recorded seven tackles for loss. The Minutemen today recorded 12 tackles for loss. And that’s even less excusable.

5.) Taking what they’re given

When Tennessee was able to move the football, late in the first half, the Vols took advantage of soft underneath coverage by UMass. Dormady hit the short routes over and over, and it lead to a couple of scores. But UMass took that away in the third quarter, and it was right back to a stagnant look for Tennessee’s offense. Keep in mind that the Minutemen entered today’s game ranking 99th in the nation in total defense, despite playing a very weak schedule. The two nice second quarter drives not withstanding, Tennessee’s offensive struggles today were concerning.

6.) No surprise, really

We told you this week that it wouldn’t be a surprise if Tennessee struggled to cover the 28-point spread. UMass played three SEC teams last year (Florida, South Carolina and Mississippi State) and played all of them tough, making a game of all three. Some scoffed at the notion that UMass might keep it close, saying that the Minutemen were a better team a year ago. But those folks were guilty of looking at UMass’s overall record. Sure, the Minutemen were 0-4, but they finished last year with a 2-10 record, and one of those wins came against Wagner. Bottom line: Massachusetts isn’t winning many games right now, but the Minutemen have made a habit of playing Power 5 teams tough.

7.) Where was the fire?

Has Butch Jones lost his team? We’ll find out next week, when Georgia comes to town. But what we saw today was concerning, to say the least. As former Auburn coach Gene Chizik pointed out, the coaches seemed more excited to play the game than the players. That isn’t a good look. Yes, the Vols were coming off a disappointing loss. Yes, they were playing a lackluster opponent. Yes, it was an early start. Yes, it was very hot. Et cetera and so on. But it’s the coaches’ job to get the team ready to play, no matter the circumstances. And good teams bounce back from disheartening losses with a zeal because they want vengeance. Tennessee looked more like a team that was licking its wounds.

One moment in the first half that was particularly concerning: Shawn Shamburger was called for a holding penalty on a punt return. Butch Jones was livid, and proceeded to chew out Shamburger on the sideline. The freshman ignored his coach and turned to walk away. Fellow freshman Ja’Quain Blakely grabbed Shamburger’s jersey to prevent him from walking away, but Shamburger shoved him off and walked away anyway, as Jones shouted at the back of his helmet. That was a disconcerting look.

8.) Saying the right things

I think it’s becoming increasingly likely that Butch Jones might be fired by the end of this season, but credit him for at least appearing to shoulder responsibility instead of resorting to cliches and coach-speak, which is what we’ve seen in the past. Following last week’s loss to Florida, Jones accepted the blame for the loss and said it was on him. In his Vol Network postgame interview today, when Bob Kesling attempted to bail him out with the “a win is a win” line, Jones stopped him in his tracks. “Make no mistake,” Jones said, “The effort was unacceptable.” Jones was also furious in his postgame press conference with reporters. That’s good. Because that should be his attitude at this point. The question is whether he can fix the problems quickly enough to salvage the season.

9.) Two injuries from an upset?

UMass entered today’s game without preseason All-American tight end Adam Breneman. The senior is the Minutemen’s leading receiver, averaging six catches per game. And quarterback Andrew Ford left the game with an injury in the third quarter. Could UMass have pulled off a stunning upset if both players had been available for the entire game? We’ll never know, and it’s dangerous to assume, but it’s also frightening to think about just how close Tennessee was to winning this game.

10.) Relying on the defense

Who would have thought that Tennessee, which entered today’s game ranked 95th in the nation in total defense, would rely on its defense instead of its offense to beat UMass?

Yet that’s exactly where things stood in the fourth quarter. With Tennessee’s offense putting up putrid second half numbers, the Vols turned to their offense. In fact, we aren’t convinced that the Vols’ playcalling, which was undeniably vanilla in the second half, wasn’t influenced by the fact that Tennessee was convinced UMass would be unable to move the football.

By the fourth quarter, the Minutemen were no threat to move the football against Tennessee’s defense. Time after time UMass got its offense on the field, and time after time that offense went nowhere.

Tennessee’s defense hardly played perfect. UMass finished with 144 rushing yards, which was well over its average. But the Vols’ defensive linemen finally began to play up to their potential. The defensive line, in fact, took over the game in the fourth quarter.

Sure, it was UMass. And, sure, the Minutemen were without their top two offensive weapons by that point. But, still, Tennessee finished with seven sacks. Remember, this team had just one sack against Georgia Tech and Indiana State combined. It was the Vols’ highest single-game sack total in 17 years. And that’s impressive, no matter who the opponent is.

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