Undaunted by the hostile atmosphere, Tennessee played its best game of the season Sept. 27 in Athens. Justin Worley threw for 264 yards and three touchdowns. Jalen Hurd ran for 119 yards. Tennessee’s defense sacked Hutson Mason three times, intercepted him twice and limited him to 147 passing yards. If not for the brilliance of Georgia running back Todd Gurley (208 rushing yards) and Worley missing three crucial possessions due to a hit on the funny bone of his right elbow, Tennessee would’ve upset the 12th-ranked Bulldogs.
Even in defeat, the Vols learned lessons from that trip to Athens that should serve them well on this Saturday’s trip to Oxford. Head coach Butch Jones offered a litany of pluses when asked about the benefits of the Georgia road game.
“Playing in a hostile environment,” he said. “Understanding the ebbs and flows of going on the road, the road focus that it takes to go in and win on the road, situational football, making plays on the road, being locked in a zone. There’s numerous teaching opportunities that we have taken (from that game).”
Tennessee also played well in a road loss at No. 4 Oklahoma, despite a deceptive 34-10 final score. If Jason Croom hangs onto a touchdown pass in the third quarter and Worley throws a touchdown instead of a pick-six at the OU 3-yard line in the fourth quarter, Tennessee is down just 27-24 with 10 minutes remaining.
“We’ve played some challenging games on the road in terms of Oklahoma and Georgia and now Ole Miss,” Jones noted.
Although Tennessee played well in Norman, it played significantly better in Athens. Jones recalls a lot of positives from that contest.
“We kept fighting,” he said. “The belief in winning the game. We had numerous opportunities to let down; we didn’t do that. We kept fighting. We kept believing. We kept scratching. We kept clawing. And we were one or two plays away from winning that football game.”
Even with a host of freshmen playing key roles, the Vols exhibited a lot of grit and poise in the loss at Georgia. Their coach finds that quite encouraging.
“They showed great resiliency and perseverance,” Jones said, “and that’s exactly what you need to go on the road and win in this conference.”
With a 3-3 record, Tennessee’s season is at a crossroads. A lopsided loss in Oxford could be devastating. Conversely, an upset win in Oxford could be the springboard to a strong finish.
“We’re still looking for a big road win,” sophomore linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin told InsideTennessee. “As a team, we’ve just got to learn how to win on the road, learn how to finish those games out. I think this will be a big step in teaching us how to win on the road.”
Perhaps, but Saturday’s road test in Oxford projects to be more challenging than the earlier road test in Athens. Ole Miss doesn’t have a running back as dynamic as Gurley but it has a better quarterback and better receivers. Defensively, the Rebels are light-years better. Whereas the Dawgs played soft coverage that allowed Worley to nickel and dime them to death, Ole Miss plays press coverage that will take away a lot of the quick routes. That puts pressure on Tennessee’s patchwork offensive line to protect longer and puts pressure on Tennessee’s receivers to get separation faster.
Despite facing the NCAA's third-ranked team on the road, the Vols seem confident. Maybe they are taking their cue from senior linebacker A.J. Johnson, who basically views road games as home games without the checkerboard end zones.
“I like going into a hostile environment,” he told IT. “I feel like it makes you want to play a little better. We just focus on our performance as a defense.”
The fact Tennessee’s freshman contributors already have one SEC road game under their belts is a plus, especially since they helped the Vols hang with a ranked Georgia team on its home field. Johnson is confident the rookies will take care of business again this Saturday at Oxford.
“The young guys who are playing are going to do their job. They’re going to make plays,” he said. “We ain’t worried about going on the road. It’s going to be a fun experience going on the road and being able to compete. The young guys who are playing know what they’re supposed to do and they’re doing their job right.”
And, if they can replicate their performance at Georgia, that 17-point spread might be a little too much again.
Butch Jones post-practice Tuesday
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