Saturday's 55-48 defeat of Troy was the worst defensive effort I've witnessed, and I've been watching the Vols play football for nearly 50 years. If that had been Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers piling up 721 yards of total offense against the Big Orange, I might be a little more understanding. But it was the Troy Trojans of the Sun Belt Conference.
This defense can't defend a forward pass, which is why opposing quarterbacks have field days against the Big Orange every Saturday. This defense can't stop a draw play, either, even when everyone in Neyland Stadium knows one is coming.
It's a shame, really. Tennessee has some of the greatest offensive weapons in program history in rubber-armed Tyler Bray, plus spectacular wideouts Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter. The Vols could be a top-10 team if they had even a mediocre defense. But they don't.
Where the game was won
At 6-feet-4 and 200 pounds, the lanky Hunter isn't fond of going over the middle. He did so twice in the game's final three minutes, however, and produced two of the game's biggest plays in the process.
With Tennessee down 48-41, Hunter caught a crossing route and outran Troy's secondary to complete a 46-yard touchdown play that tied the score at 48 with 2:54 remaining. After a three-and-out by the Trojans, Tennessee advanced to a third-and-10 at the Troy 33-yard line. Hunter gathered in another crossing route and sped 24 yards to the nine-yard line. Marlin Lane scored on the next play to provide the winning margin.
The big picture
Beating Troy by seven points on your home field is hardly cause for celebration. Still, the Vols stopped the hemhorraging caused by a four-game losing streak and kept alive their flickering hopes for a winning season and a bowl bid.
The Vols obviously must improve dramatically on defense if they are to sweep their three remaining games – versus Missouri, at Vanderbilt and versus Kentucky. In fact, they must improve dramatically on defense just to win two of the three.
Players of the game
Offense: Tyler Bray
When you break Peyton Manning's school record for single-game passing yards, you deserve to be Offensive Player of the Game. Bray was in rare form, completing 29 of 47 passes for 530 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions. He might have cracked the 600-yard mark and posted two more TDs if not for wide-open drops by Hunter and Vincent Dallas.
The most significant aspect of Bray's day, however, was the fact he rallied the Vols from a 48-41 deficit by directing two touchdown drives in the final three minutes. When asked if he knew in the closing minutes that he had posted a record-setting performance, he replied: "I knew we were down seven with three minutes to go. That's all I was worried about. I could care less about breaking records. We needed a win."
Bray got a lot of help from receivers Patterson (9 catches, 219 yards) and Hunter (9 catches, 181 yards). The quarterback wasn't surprised by their dynamic production.
"They're going to do this every week," he said. "They're two NFL-caliber receivers. You've just got to give them the ball, and they're going to make plays."
Defense: Byron Moore
Like the rest of Tennessee's defensive backs, Moore was torched several times by Troy's passing attack. He was stout against the run, however, recording 7 solos and 5 assists. Twelve tackles by a safety is both a credit to Moore and an indictment of the Vol front seven. Although he played "in the box" some, he often was forced to make a tackle because the linemen and linebackers had failed to do so.
"It was a little bit of both," Moore said. "I was coming downhill more (in run support) and there were guys breaking through the hole, so it was my job to make sure he gets down because there's nobody behind me to stop him."
Tennessee's secondary play was beyond abysmal, allowing 496 passing yards and three passing touchdowns. Nothing the Vols tried worked but Moore said he and the other DBs tried to keep their chins up.
"You've just got to keep your head on straight," Moore said. "Stick to the plan and keep grinding."
The Tigers (4-5 overall, 1-5 SEC) led 7-0 at halftime before losing 14-7 to Florida Saturday in Gainesville. Missouri quarterback James Franklin completed 24 of 51 passes for 236 yards but threw four interceptions. The Tiger defense was most impressive, limiting Florida to 276 total yards and a mere 2-of-13 success rate on third-down conversions.
Missouri's only SEC win to date came by a 33-10 score against visiting Kentucky on Oct. 27. The Vols and Tigers have four common opponents. Tennessee lost 51-44 at Georgia; Missouri lost 41-20 at home to the Dawgs. Tennessee lost 38-35 at South Carolina; Missouri lost 31-10 at South Carolina; Tennessee lost 44-13 at home to Alabama; the Tigers lost 42-10 at home to Bama. The Vols lost 37-20 at home to Florida; Missouri lost 14-7 on the road at Florida.