For a blowout game, Joshua Dobbs did enough good things to warrant future optimism. But his three turnovers — two interceptions and a fumble — would have made a Tennessee upset all but impossible even if the Vols had done everything else right on Saturday night. The Vols have a slim margin for error, especially as heavy road underdogs. Dobbs has to cut out the mistakes next week against Auburn.
Running backs: D
Rajion Neal (eight carries, 8 yards) had a day he wishes he could forget. Sometimes a running back’s day is reliant on the blocks he gets — or doesn’t get. But Neal’s day paled in comparison to Marlin Lane (six carries, 37 yards), so it’s difficult to find the reason for his struggles. The Vols used plenty of two-back sets, and also used running backs split out wide as part of five-receiver sets. But Neal has been a workhorse in the past, so the additional route-running shouldn’t have affected his production.
Wide receivers/tight ends: C
Alton “Pig” Howard was the only consistent target for Dobbs, although his numbers (11 catches, 89 yards) were padded by some short shovel passes. Josh Smith dropped a potential touchdown pass in the first half.
Offensive line: D
Tennessee entered Saturday as the least-penalized team in the SEC, so the six false starts have to be especially confounding for coach Butch Jones. The crowd was loud, but no louder than at Oregon or Florida. Did the transition to a new quarterback have anything to do with it? Jones said there was some concern about the “new cadence,” but most of the problems were due to “lack of discipline.”
Defensive line: D
The Vols have struggled to put pressure on the quarterback while also hemming him in. That was the case again Saturday. Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk picked up 114 yards on 13 runs. He was never sacked, although he faced occasional pressure. The Vols’ run defense continues to be worrisome, especially with a game against Auburn coming next week.
The Vols used a nickel set exclusively on Saturday, so a third linebacker was only needed when UT used three down linemen in pass-rush situations. A.J. Johnson and Dontavis Sapp combined for 20 tackles.
Whether it was his exclusively his fault or not, nickelback JaRon Toney seemed to get burned on two deep passes. At safety, Byron Moore, LaDarrell McNeil and Brian Randolph all seem to be facing injuries of varying severity, and it may have affected their play.
Special teams: B
The Vols had a nice punt return by Devrin Young negated by penalty and didn’t gain much traction in the return game. Michael Palardy and the Vols’ coverage teams bounced back with a respectable performance. Palardy also nailed a 51-yard field goal in the first half.
If coaches get credit for penalty-free teams (and they do), they should also shoulder some of the blame for penalty-ridden performances. Jones acknowledged as much after the game.
The loss to No. 1 Alabama could be easily brushed aside because the result was predictable. But the loss to Missouri should sting more. Anyone banking on a Tennessee win wasn’t giving Missouri enough credit. But the Vols’ failure to deliver a competitive game raises troubling questions about the final three games of the season — especially next week against Auburn.
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