I believe they succeeded on that count.
With OU leading 27-10 late in the third quarter Tennessee marched to the Sooner 26-yard line. I’m pretty sure Stoops was sweating at this point. I imagine he held his breath when Vol quarterback Justin Worley lofted a perfect pass into the end zone that hit 6-foot-5, 243-pound Jason Croom right in the hands. He bobbled the ball, however, enabling OU cornerback Zack Sanchez to wrest the ball away. What should’ve been a touchdown became a touchback. What should’ve been a 27-17 Vol deficit stayed at 27-10.
Tennessee’s defense forced a three-and-out at this point, and the Vols launched another nice drive to start the fourth quarter. This one reached a third-and-one at Oklahoma’s four-yard line. I imagine Stoops was sweating bullets at this point.
Again Worley threw into the end zone. Again a Sooner defensive back came away with the ball. This time Julian Wilson caught a deflection and returned it the length of the field for a pick-six. What should’ve been a Tennessee touchdown became an Oklahoma touchdown. What should’ve been a 27-17 deficit swelled to a 34-10 deficit. That 14-point swing was the ball game, pure and simple.
To recap: If Croom holds onto a ball that hits him in the hands, Tennessee is down 27-17 late in the third quarter. If Worley makes a better decision on the next possession, Tennessee is down 27-24 with most of the fourth quarter remaining to be played. Who knows what might have happened in that situation? Riding the momentum of a 14-0 rally, the Vols might have posted a monumental upset.
Even in a 24-point loss I saw some positive developments. Here are a few:
After rushing for minus-11 yards in the first half, Tennessee rushed for plus-123 in the second half. I don’t know what the Vols did differently in the final two periods, but they need to keep doing it.
Freshman Jalen Hurd finally showed the big-play potential that made him one of America’s elite running back prospects a year ago, rushing 14 times for 97 yards. If he can provide a running threat to complement Tennessee’s assortment of receiving threats, this offense has a chance to develop into a pretty balanced and pretty potent bunch in the weeks ahead.
Despite mediocre stats – 21 of 44 passing for 201 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions – Worley showed me some poise and toughness Saturday night I hadn’t noticed before. If Croom doesn’t bobble that 26-yard touchdown pass, Worley is 22 of 44 for 227 yards with 2 TDs and 1 interception. He’s not Peyton Manning but he’s not chopped liver, either.
Freshman Aaron Medley made a clutch 31-yard field goal from an extreme angle to narrow the gap to 27-10 at a time when Oklahoma appeared on the verge of blowing the Vols right out of the stadium. That had to work wonders for the confidence of a young man who may be called upon to attempt several game-deciding kicks this fall.
Although Oklahoma scored 34 points, I think Tennessee’s defense deserves a lot of credit. Lousy special-teams play created horrible field position for the stop unit in the first quarter, when OU bolted to a 13-0 lead. Discounting a pick-six by the Sooner defense, Oklahoma scored just two TDs on Vol defenders during the final three periods. I’m guessing very few OU foes the rest of this season will be able to make that claim.
Sophomore receiver Josh Smith, who battled a case of the drops as a freshman in 2013, scored his first college touchdown Saturday night and appears to have exorcised his demons from last fall.
And don’t forget: Tennessee should have injured Von Pearson back in time for Game 4 at Georgia. He’s a difference-maker who will help prevent teams from focusing so much attention on Marquez North. Even without Pearson on Saturday night North burned the Sooners for 87 yards on six receptions.
Basically, Tennessee lost to a superior opponent playing on its home field. There is no shame in that. Even with less talent and experience, however, the Vols might have beaten Oklahoma if the offensive line had showed up for the first half and if the special-teams units had played even half-decent.
I feel sure both the O-line play and the special-teams play will improve. The right side of the offensive line (freshman guard Jashon Robertson and freshman tackle Coleman Thomas) received some valuable on-the-job training against Oklahoma’s rugged defensive front. And I can assure you that Butch Jones emphasizes special teams way too much for it to continue playing as badly as it did on this particular night.
I’m not going to call Saturday’s game a moral victory because there are only two columns beside a team’s name – one for wins and one for losses. Oklahoma gets the win and Tennessee gets the loss. I will say this: I thought the Vols grew up an awful lot Saturday night in Norman. And I’m pretty sure I saw Bob Stoops sweat a couple of times.