BY JIM STEELE
I think most folks in the Big Orange fold are going to have to get used to the fact that the 2021 edition of Tennessee Vols are going to take you on a fascinating road trip down a bumpy gravel road.
Yes, the Volunteers suffered a 41-34 loss to Pittsburgh Saturday, but this was a winnable game against a decent, not great, team. Because of this, Tennessee fans are likely experiencing equal parts frustration and optimism. Maybe this team doesn’t have as far to go as we think.
Yeah, it’s September 15 and this team still has to face the likes of Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Ole Miss, so the jury is still out, but you get the idea that this team has made a few strides where it pertains to improvement.
But there were still a lot of issues. For starters, I still feel like the quarterback Tennessee needs isn’t on campus. I still believe this team doesn’t have its quarterback. That’s a problem. When you consider the bulk of Tennessee’s offensive woes over the past few seasons stem from issues at quarterback.
Joe Milton cannot complete the deep pass, and it was open for much of the day. I’ll cut him a break on one of the deep passes he threw because one of those passes was dropped in the end zone. There has been too much of that, too. Milton didn’t play just awful, his 54-yard run that almost resulted in a score was impressive, but it also demonstrated Milton does not possess breakaway speed.
Hendon Hooker came in and gave the Vols a lift by engineering some impressive TD drives. Yeah, the late pick hurt, and he didn’t recognize the back-side safety help, but that’s football. Interceptions happen and, often, at the worst possible time.
Sustaining 13 penalties for 134 yards was completely unacceptable. The Vols suffered some TD-killing flags, just like last week versus Bowling Green. They once were first-and-goal from the 5 only to try a 48-yard field goal, a result of stupid penalties by veteran players. The discipline must get better.
Going from the shotgun on fourth-and-inches was straight from the Butch Jones’ playbook. Why not go from under center and just fall forward the six-inches-or-so you needed to get the first down inside the 5? That decision toggled toward infuriating, especially when UT coach Josh Heupel conceded, in his post-game presser, that the Vols do have plays from under center. More on this in a bit.
Tennessee could have beaten this team. Tennessee should have put 50-plus on the board. Whether it was the block-in-the back on the field goal return, the two missed wide-open receivers, settling for two field goals that should have been touchdowns, or that horrid fourth-and-inches call, Tennessee, once again, left a lot of points on the field. The ingredients are there. This team just needs to figure out a way to pull it all together.
What will be key is how Heupel handles all this. A winnable game slipped through his fingers. Will he be like his three predecessors Derek Dooley, Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt and be stubborn or hard-headed, especially regarding the fourth-and-short call, or will he learn from this? He seems like a different animal than what Big Orange fans have had to suffer through since 2009, but is he really? We’ll find out.
The frustrating thing is that a winnable game went by the boards and at home, to boot. That’s why this loss was so perplexing.
Especially since winning has been in short supply on The Hill.
Editor’s note: Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox, which airs 4-6 p.m., Monday-Thursday on WRJB, 95.9 FM, Camden.