Tennessee didn’t have to look hard for silver linings.
It largely shut down the run defensively, had some success hitting big plays downfield through the air and was able to get more young players experience in another game against a top-10 opponent.
The Vols could have taken it even further after playing the No. 9 Gators tough in a 31-17 loss on Saturday night at Neyland Stadium, but instead of emphasizing a moral victory they’ve focused on how it could have been a real one.
“It really was a lot more negatives (this week),” UT coach Derek Dooley, whose team plays host to Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday (TV: WVLT, 12:21 p.m.), said during his Sunday teleconference. “You come out of there feeling like we competed pretty good and then you just see all the lost opportunities and it just makes you sick, and we had so many of them.
“I was pleased with how we competed. You just look at a week ago, we were down 14 in both games, we were sitting there with 11 minutes to go down one score with a chance to put some heat on (Florida) and tie it up, and we didn’t get it done. It came down to a lot of breakdowns in a lot of areas.”
By comparison, a 10-point loss last year against the Gators (3-0, 1-0 SEC) was generally hailed as an encouraging step forward, and to some extent progress was easy to see for the Vols (1-2, 0-1) after the blowout the previous week against Oregon.
UT obviously didn’t quit when the game got tough in the fourth quarter, it was able to force a critical turnover and quarterback Matt Simms also was able to bounce back from a couple of ugly interceptions with a clutch fourth-down strike to Justin Hunter for a score that cut the deficit to seven points.
But as the Vols turn the page to start work on UAB this week, they don’t appear to have any great interest in hearing about the good things they did against the Gators.
“We kept swinging, we kept going for them and we stayed in the game,” linebacker Nick Reveiz said. “But you don’t want to be like that’s a great thing, because we lost. I felt like it was a step in the right direction as opposed to last week, and it’s better than going backwards again. I’m proud of our football team, but I’m disappointed that we lost.
“We can’t say that we hung within points. We had a chance to win, and that’s a good thing. But you can’t hang your hat on that. You’ve got to hang your hats on wins and stopping the run, on getting off the field on third down, we didn’t do that today. We’ve just got to keep working.”
The fact that they didn’t stop grinding in the fourth quarter was the surest sign of improvement from an effort that embarrassed the Vols the week before, though Dooley wasn’t in a hurry to pat them on the back for that, either.
Competing for four full quarters is a standard expectation, and the next step is making sure UT executes in all phases while it’s doing it.
“It’s discouraging that we couldn’t have taken advantage of it Saturday night,” Dooley said. “Probably what I was most disappointed in offensively was we did a lot of things out there that we didn’t do in practice, meaning I felt like we were probably trying too hard to do something special instead of just executing the offense and doing what your coached to do. That’s at all positions, and it showed.
“I think what you feel good about is you did do what I think is just a baseline standard at every game, and that’s how you compete. It’s like I told the team afterward, I’m proud of them for doing that, but that should be the standard. Once you do that, what it proves is that you have a chance to win the football game.”
Now the focus is on how UT can actually do it instead of how close it came to pulling it off over the weekend.
Bumps and bruises: The status of center Cody Pope is still up in the air for UAB, and the Vols could be without another starter on the offensive line.
JerQuari Schofield left Saturday’s loss to Florida with a foot injury, and while Dooley didn’t give a specific timetable for the left guard, he didn’t sound optimistic.
“It looks like JerQuari is out for a while, we’ll know more (today) officially,” Dooley said. “I don’t think he’s doing too good on his foot.”