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Tennessee vs. LSU: 10 things

Photo: UTSports.com

On a nasty weather night at Neyland Stadium, LSU defeated Tennessee 30-10 on Nov. 18, 2017. Here are 10 things that stood out . . .

1.) Fan support

Can we lay to rest this nonsense about Tennessee fans not supporting their team? If nothing else, UT has shown this season that it has one of the top fan bases in America. Official attendance for Saturday’s game was 96,888. And, no, it wasn’t quite that high. That number means there were almost 8,000 tickets unsold — let alone the tickets that were sold and not used. But it was higher than the 70,000 estimate from Jimmy Hyams.

On a nasty weather night in Knoxville — the wind was bad, the rain was worse — Neyland Stadium was almost full. Look around at the photos of half-full stadiums elsewhere in the SEC where teams are struggling and then re-evaluate your opinion of the Tennessee fan base. As ESPN’s Brock Huard said: “I don’tk now of another place where an 0-6 team in conference play can get 90,000 to show up.”

I sat outside Gate 21 before the game and listened to the Vol Network’s Pat Ryan say that the Tennessee fan base has quit on the team. That’s a garbage statement, and one that’s completely unfair to UT fans who have stuck with this team through 11 games of really, really bad football.

2.) A defensive stand

If I had told you before Saturday’s game that Tennessee would hold LSU’s Derrius Guice under 100 yards rushing, you would have laughed at me. Guice, one of the nation’s top runningbacks, finished with 97 yards on 24 carries — an average of four yards per carry.

As a team, LSU finished with 200 yards on the ground, but UT’s defense played pretty well overall. In fact, Bob Shoop’s defense played well enough for Tennessee to win.

The theme of this season — if you take away last week’s disaster at Missouri — has been an improving defense. After giving up 655 yards to Georgia Tech and being ranked near the bottom of the FBS in total defense, the Vols’ defensive unit has steadily improved. It still has its weaknesses, to be sure. But Saturday’s effort was a continuation of the general theme after the letup against Missouri.

Don’t let the 30 points scored by LSU deceive you. The Tigers were given the ball in or near the red zone three times by UT turnovers — twice on muffed punts, one on a turnover on downs. That led to 17 of those 30 points. Tennessee essentially gave up two sustained drives for touchdowns. One came near the end of the first half, when UT was backed up near the goal line and forced to punt, giving LSU good field position. The other came at the start of the third quarter, when the Vols were backed up by a mishandled kickoff and forced to punt, giving the Tigers good field position.

LSU did not have a first down until midway through the second quarter, and its longest scoring drive was 61. The next-longest scoring drive was 50 yards. The third-longest scoring drive was 21 yards.

3.) An emotional effort

Tennessee’s sideline showed more fire and energy during Saturday’s game than at any point this season. That’s a tribute to Brady Hoke and the job he has done getting this team ready to play. Unfortunately, emotion doesn’t do anything to improve execution, and that’s why the Vols lost the game. But credit Hoke and his staff for rallying the troops after Butch Jones’ departure.

When Florida fired Jim McElwain, the Gators rolled over and went belly-up. If anyone questioned whether Tennessee’s team would do the same, the answer was a resounding “no.”

4.) Abysmal special teams play

Part of it — most of it, really — was mistakes by Tennessee, and the rest of it was execution by LSU. But Tennessee’s special teams play — once a strength during the Butch Jones era — looked completely incompetent Saturday.

Marquez Callaway, who has become a fan favorite after playing a key role in the Vols’ come-from-behind win against Georgia Tech, gifted LSU with 10 points in the first half, mishandling two consecutive points. The first gave LSU the ball at Tennessee’s 13-yard-line, the second gave LSU the ball at Tennessee’s 19-yard-line.

You can’t do that and expect to win against anyone, let alone a ranked team.

There were two mishandled kickoffs, as well. The opening kickoff of the second half came in the driving rain, but high school teams may have handled that better than Tennessee did, which resulted in the Vols’ offense taking the field at their three-yard-line. Three plays later, a punt gave the Tigers the ball at midfield.

As for punting, LSU averaged 49 yards on five punts and landed three of the five inside the 20. Field position was crucial, and LSU won that battle all night — in large part due to special teams.

Throw in an ill-timed time out that took a made field goal off the board and led to Aaron Medley’s second-quarter shank, and it was an all-around terrible night for Tennessee on special teams.

The lone bright spot was the reliable Trevor Daniel, who averaged 51 yards on four punts.

5.) Changes on offense

The weather impacted Tennessee’s playcalling on Saturday, and the Vols — perhaps because of that — were far too insistent on running the football on a night when the running game clearly wasn’t going to work.

But it wasn’t hard to see the changes to Tennessee’s offensive game plan, and they were mostly positive. If you ever doubted whether offensive coordinator Larry Scott was being kept under Butch Jones’ thumb, Saturday’s game should’ve removed that doubt. That isn’t to say that Scott won over any fans as a capable SEC-level offensive coordinator, but most of the changes were refreshing.

Tennessee had some well-timed and well-called screens that utilized its runningbacks and led to crucial first downs. Jarrett Guarantano went under center more often than he has at any point this season. And UT intentionally slowed things down, using all of the play clock in an effort to keep its defense off the field as much as possible. Tennessee also used a lot of wrinkles, including a double pass and John Kelly in a wildcat look.

It would’ve been interesting to see how much better the UT offense would’ve been if Guarantano were 100 percent. As it was, the redshirt freshman quarterback was playing at about 70 percent, on a bum ankle.

6.) Poor coaching calls

Brady Hoke deserves credit for rallying his team, but the interim head coach made his fair share of mistakes on Saturday.

For starters, there was a time out on Aaron Medley’s 46-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter. Kicking into a strong cross wind, Medley had nailed a 45-yard field goal from the same end of the field a possession earlier to tie the game. With LSU up 10-3, Medley was charged with a 46-yard field goal to put more points on the board. As the play clock wound down to two, Hoke took a time out . . . just as the ball was snapped and Medley’s kick settled through the uprights (just barely). The do-over wasn’t even close, as Medley’s shanked kick landed deep in the heavy rough.

Hoke admitted after the game that he was given the option of delaying the start of the second half as a heavy rain pelted Neyland Stadium. A quick radar consultation would’ve revealed that the heavy rain would last less than 15 minutes before letting up. But Hoke chose to play on, and Tennessee completely bungled the second half kickoff, taking over at its three-yard-line. Three plays later, a Trevor Daniel punt rolled dead at midfield, giving LSU a short field that resulted in a touchdown and a 23-10 lead. Hindsight is obviously 20-20, but it wasn’t wise to opt into sending his kick return team onto the field in those conditions.

The biggest blunder by Hoke was the decision to go for it on fourth down at his 22-yard-line in the third quarter. Needing just about three inches to pick up the first down, Tennessee opted for a quarterback sneak by Jarrett Guarantano, and it wasn’t even close. LSU took over at the 21 and quickly scored a touchdown to put the game out of reach.

The fourth down try was what just about everyone in the stadium wanted, but as a head coach you make decisions based on the reality of the game situation, not emotions. Tennessee’s defense was playing well and had just forced a three-and-out. UT was only down 23-10 with about four minutes to play in the third quarter. Under no circumstance should the Vols have gone for it in that situation, especially considering the way their offensive line was performing.

7.) Offensive line play

I’m not sure what more can be said for Tennessee’s offensive line at this point that hasn’t already been said. It’s a M.A.S.H. unit, starting four freshmen on Saturday. It’s been patched up and realigned throughout the season. But this is a unit that wasn’t performing well even before the injuries began to take their toll.

John Kelly, one of the SEC’s best backs, averaged just 1.9 yards per carry against LSU. As a team, the Vols finished with a measly 38 yards on the ground, averaging 1.1 yards per carry. It was an atrocious effort.

The bottom line? Walt Wells cannot leave town soon enough. This is, maybe, what happens when you promote a quality control coach to offensive line coach? Okay, to be fair, Wells has spent his entire coaching career as an offensive line coach before joining Butch Jones’ staff in 2016. But he had no experience coaching the OL at the Power 5 level, and that has shown up big-time in 2017.

8.) Guarantano needs lots of growth

Jarrett Guarantano was limited Saturday by the injury that kept him out of last week’s game at Missouri, but Tennessee had no choice. With Will McBride out with an injury of his own (thanks to that porous OL discussed above) and Quinten Dormady out for the season with a bad shoulder (again, the OL), Tennessee had to put Guarantano back out, perhaps before he was ready.

But injuries don’t really have a huge impact on decision-making, and Guarantano still has a lot of ground to make up in that regard. Twice on Saturday, LSU telegraphed blitzes that should’ve caused Guarantano to check into a different play. He didn’t on either occasion, and both of them wound up in sacks.

The good news is Guarantano has shown that he can be a good SEC quarterback. He just needs the proper development. He needs a good quarterbacks coach, which Tennessee does not have at this point.

9.) Bad execution

Execution and discipline win football games. Or lose them, as the case may be.

The differences in that regard jumped off the stat sheet in Saturday’s game. Ed Orgeron — who was promoted to head coach at LSU after Les Miles was fired four games into the 2016 season — has not been well-respected as a head coach since he stumbled his way to a 10-25 record at Ole Miss from 2005 to 2007. But Orgeron — who made his first trip back to Knoxville since he was on Lane Kiffin’s staff in 2009 — has this LSU team playing very well.

Despite a lot of wind and a lot of rain at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, LSU played almost mistake-free. Tennessee could not say the same.

LSU did not have a fumble, and had only one penalty for nine yards. Tennessee, by contrast, put the ball on the ground five times — losing two — and was penalized five times.

That was the difference in the game.

10.) On the precipice of history

There are two college football programs at the FBS level that have never lost eight games in a season. Tennessee is one of those (Ohio State is the other).

If the Vols can’t find a way to beat Vanderbilt next week at Neyland Stadium (4 p.m., SEC Network), the Buckeyes will stand alone on that list.

Additionally, Tennessee has never gone winless in SEC play, and hasn’t gone winless in conference play since 1924 (UT was 0-4 in Southern Conference play that year). UT has had several one-win seasons in the SEC — finishing 1-7 in both 2011 and 2012 under Derek Dooley, and 1-5 in 1977 under first-year head coach Johnny Majors. Tennessee was also 1-5-1 in 1964 under first-year head coach Bill Battle, and 1-5 in 1954 under Harvey Robinson.

Forget bowl talks; it’s unlikely that Tennessee can depend on its APR to get an invitation with a 5-7 record. But if you think there isn’t plenty to play for, consider the above. This is not history that the Vols want to achieve.

To achieve it with the level of talent on the roster would be an especially damning indictment of the level of coaching UT has received this season.

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