If Tennessee thinks it is just going to trot out a fine collection of offensive skill players and win football games with finesse, the coach picked up some strong evidence to the contrary on an afternoon that otherwise wouldn’t have meant much.
In a split-squad exhibition, one side — the Orange team — trotted out the starting quarterback and running back, the top returning receiver and three first-team linemen, and got pushed around in a 24-7 loss in the Orange and White Game on Saturday, strengthening Dooley’s case about the importance of physical football.
“It was a great example that it doesn’t matter what kind of game it is, spring game, SEC game, you name it — the team that can win at the line of scrimmage and run the football has the best chance of winning,” Dooley said. “Today was evidence of that. It doesn’t matter how many fancy guys you’ve got at the skill positions, you better be a physical football team.
“The White came in a heavy underdog, Orange was confident and talking smack, had all the skill — and the White went blue-collar on them and punched them right in the mouth. It was fun to watch.”
On the flip side, the Orange team often made it look painful to move the ball as quarterback Tyler Bray struggled from start to finish during a dreadful 5-for-30 outing through the air.
The sophomore didn’t throw an interception, led all passers with 122 yards and added a 54-yard touchdown to wide-open tight end Mychal Rivera to make the game competitive in the third quarter. But with Bray’s accuracy consistently lacking, his decision-making questionable as he forced at least one pass into quadruple-coverage and his frustration evident as the game wore on, the Orange offense struggled to find a way downfield.
And with the White pounding away with 22 carries for 113 yards between Rajion Neal and Toney Williams, the contrast in styles was clear.
“You know what I said Thursday — if Tyler would have gone 27-of-30 for 300 (yards) I would have said, ‘Yeah, we’re doing good,’ ” Dooley said. “If he would have gone 5-for-30, which is what he did, ‘It’s just the spring game, it doesn’t matter.’
“There were a lot of reasons he wasn’t on, and it starts with him. I think he went in a little bit confident, feeling good about the matchups, and when you’re not on edge, you’re never going to perform. There were some serious mismatches in protection that I think affected him early, and then once it gets going bad early you’ve got to get that run-game settled in.”
The Orange had that option at times with Tauren Poole running hard and showing off a couple of impressive moves on the way to 60 yards on nine carries, but it was mostly out-manned up front and struggled to control the line of scrimmage.
The White had no such issues offensively, with Neal putting his ability to accelerate on display and Williams coming out of nowhere to grind his way to more than five yards per carry.
And when needed, backup quarterback Matt Simms was able to balance the attack by completing six of 13 attempts for 93 yards, including a 43-yarder for a score to Neal. But just like last year’s unbalanced Orange and White statistics that favored Bray when Simms was considered the starter, the Vols again don’t appear to be putting too much stock in one day — good or bad.
“Of course there’s going to be a little frustration when things aren’t going your way, but we just tried to battle the whole time,” Rivera said. “Kind of in the back of our head we knew it would be hard with everybody separated, but we still tried to compete as hard as we could.
“I know Tyler Bray is a great quarterback, and you guys will see that in the first game. It doesn’t change anything for us.”
Dooley had stressed going into it that the exhibition wasn’t going to send the Vols scrambling to rearrange the roster no matter what happened. But it appears to have given the players on it a reminder of how he’d like them to play.
Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Vols_Beat and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/ward.