Offensive notebook

When the offense is stalling, many Tennessee fans automatically clamor for a change at quarterback. They nearly got their wish in Saturday's game with UAB.

With the Vol attack in a full-blown second-half funk, head coach Derek Dooley considered pulling junior Matt Simms and replacing him with freshman Tyler Bray.

After building a 23-7 halftime lead, Tennessee's offense totally unraveled. The blockers forgot how to block and the pass catchers forgot how to catch. Meanwhile, the Blazers parlayed two touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions into a 23-all tie with 9:12 left in the fourth quarter.

None of this was Simms' fault. He was not to blame for the porous pass protection that led to five drive-killing sacks. He was not to blame for four false-start penalties. And he was not to blame for the four on-target passes his receivers dropped.

Still, he almost paid for the sins of his teammates by coming out of the game.

"The quarterback's job is to move the ball and score points, and we weren't doing that," Dooley said following the Vols' 32-29 two-overtime victory. "I didn't think Matt was playing bad; I just didn't think the guys around him were helping him. So that was the dilemma."

Why change quarterbacks when the quarterback isn't the problem? Because sometimes a change will shake a team from its doldrums, and Tennessee was chin-deep in doldrums, producing zero points and just 56 total yards in the second half. That's why the Vols' head man mulled a change at quarterback.

"I thought about it, yeah," Dooley said, "just because nothing was happening."

Ultimately, the coach decided that putting a true freshman like Bray into a tie game to try and spark a lethargic offense was not a great idea. So, he stuck with Simms.

"We stayed with him," Dooley said, "and I'm glad we did."

No wonder. Simms ultimately saved the day by completing a game-winning 25-yard touchdown pass on the first play of Tennessee's second-overtime possession.


Vol fans haven't seen much of freshman tailback Rajion Neal this fall but that may be about to change.

With Tauren Poole sidelined by a first-half thigh bruise, the 5-11, 215-pound Neal got four carries vs. UAB and responded with 20 yards.

"We've got to show a little more confidence in Neal," Dooley said. "He made some good plays, and we probably should've run him a little more."

The coach mentioned Neal again - though not by name - moments later.

"We've got to get the young buck going a little bit ... 20," Dooley said, referring to Neal's jersey number.


After a 14-yard punt return and a 15-yard facemask penalty, Tennessee opened its first drive of the second half at UAB's 32-yard line. Already leading 23-7, the Vols had a chance to blow the game open. Instead, they nearly blew the game.

Senior receiver Denarius Moore dropped a pass near the UAB 20-yard line on first down. Two plays later freshman Justin Hunter dropped a pass at approximately the same spot on third down, forcing the Vols to punt.

After UAB closed to 23-15 on a touchdown and two-point conversion, Moore broke free behind the Blazer defense. Simms' throw was a bit late but still hit Moore in the hands. A UAB defensive back knocked the ball loose, however, with a well-timed hit at the goal line.

On the very next play sophomore Zach Rogers dropped a third-down pass that would've given Tennessee a first down at the UAB 27-yard line. Instead, the Vols had to punt again.

Those four drops seemed to send Tennessee's offense into a downward spiral from which it would not escape until Overtime No. 2.

"We had about five drops," Dooley said. "We had a touchdown to Denarius dropped. Zach dropped a big third-down (pass). Then we went into a funk for a long time."

Dooley, who played wide receiver at the University of Virginia, made no excuses for Vol wideouts. He dismissed the idea that they may be lacking confidence.

"It's still just catch the ball," he said. "It doesn't take confidence to catch a ball right here (holding his hands in front of his face). Just catch it."


Tennessee's third-down futility is becoming almost comical. It may be becoming mental, too.

The Vols ranked 118th out of 120 Football Bowl Championship teams with a 20.93 percent third-down conversion rate (9 of 43) entering Saturday's play. Only Florida International (19.35 percent) and San Jose State (18.92 percent) were worse.

After going just 2 of 15 vs. UAB, Tennessee's success rate now stands at 18.96 percent. Twice against the Blazers Tennessee incurred false-start penalties that turned third-and-one situations into third-and-six situations. The Vols failed to convert either time.

Asked if the third-down struggles are starting to become a mental block for Tennessee's players, Dooley replied: "There's probably a component in that. It's a confidence thing. Everybody wants to do it so bad."

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