Winning 101

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Some football teams have learned how to win. Alabama, for instance, holds a masters degree. LSU, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina are enrolled in post-graduate studies.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Vols are taking some college-level courses but they're still stuck in high school. Simply put, the Big Orange keeps having to repeat the class about finishing off games in the fourth quarter.

Here's a brief refresher course:

Down 51-44 in Game 5 at Georgia, the Vols' last three possessions produced an interception at Georgia's 40-yard line, a fumble at Georgia's 31-yard line and an interception at Georgia's 48-yard line.

Down 27-24 in Game 6 at Mississippi State, the Vols' next three possessions resulted in a four-and-out, a three-and-out and a fumble. When the Dogs scored to go up 34-24, Tennessee answered to close to 34-31 with 5:22 left. The defense couldn't get a stop, however, and the Vols fell 41-31.

Down 38-35 with 8:35 left in Game 8 at South Carolina, the Vols advanced to SC's 19-yard line only to fumble. Their final gasp failed when a desperation pass was intercepted at the Gamecock 38-yard line with around 20 seconds left.

Actor Charlie Sheen got it right: It's all about winning. Still, Tennessee's players believe their string of near-misses suggests they are making progress in that direction.

"There's always one play that messes everything up, but we're still trying to put together a 60-minute game," senior offensive lineman Dallas Thomas said. "We're getting closer and closer.

"We're still confident in ourselves because we know we can do it. We've just got to keep working at it."

Senior defensive back Prentiss Waggner echoes those sentiments.

"I think it's time for the team to put together a whole 60-minute game and show the Vol Nation what they've been looking for," he said. "I think we know we can do it. We've just got to prove it to ourselves."

After noting that he "chucked it all over the field" in high school, junior quarterback Tyler Bray says he is learning to be more careful at crunch time in college.

Junior wide receiver Justin Hunter says the Vols are learning how to deal with close games.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
"The key is just control the tempo and not force plays," he said recently. "In the Georgia game I tried to force too many plays and it cost us."

Junior offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James believes mental toughness can be the winning edge in late-game situations.

"I feel like it's just straining, being mentally strong," he said. "A lot of times in the fourth quarter everybody's kind of tired. You've played three quarters, and it comes down to focusing on the little things and outstraining the opponent."

Senior tight end Mychal Rivera believes learning to win is a process, much like learning to swim or ride a bicycle.

"I think it is," he said. "If you look at this season and last season, we've had our ups and downs. We've been through it, and now it's time for us to finish the fourth quarter and win the game. I definitely see encouraging signs. Looking at film of the games we lost, we're right there knocking on the door."

Junior offensive lineman Zach Fulton also believes the Vols are on the verge of getting over the hump and making that clutch play late that separates winning and losing.

"We're very close," he said. "We always have a chance to win in the fourth quarter. There's just a few small things we've got to improve on. You just take it week by week, and every day you learn something and try to get closer to that win."

One obvious reason Tennessee is losing close games is that the defense is giving up way too many points and putting too much pressure on the offense.

"The biggest thing is just minimizing big plays and mistakes ... just don't get our team in a situation where it's up to the offense to have to pull out the victory in the last few seconds," junior defensive lineman Maurice Couch conceded. "In the SEC there's a lot of games where that's going to happen but, with the points our offense is scoring, sometimes we shouldn't be in that position."

Junior receiver Justin Hunter believes the Vols learned from the close losses they've suffered this season and are ready to buck that trend.

"I think so," he said. "I think last year we didn't have a lot of games like that and it kind of jumped up on us. I think this is a good learning experience, and we know now how to come up with a win."

Perhaps winning one close game would provide the confidence and poise the Vols need to win a second and a third.

"It would mean a lot," Hunter said. "We see we can do it. We're just not there right now. If we can, we'll know we accomplished our goal."

Tennessee's inability to pull out close games in the fourth quarter is frustrating for the fans. It's even more frustrating for the players.

"It's been tough," senior receiver Zach Rogers said. "We've been in it right up to the end these last few games and it's obviously not going our way. But we've fought, and that's something we didn't quite do a year ago. We're making progress and headed in the right direction."


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