The Vols might have had a better chance to win if the offense had taken a knee three times, then punted on every possession. Their chances might’ve been further enhanced if they had allowed the ball to bound through the end zone on every kickoff.
I’m only half-kidding. Check it out:
Tennessee’s offense picked up 21 yards on its first possession, then Matt Darr flipped the field with a 56-yard punt. The Vols’ second possession started on their 47-yard line but ended with an interception at the Ole Miss 18-yard line. I’m guessing Darr could’ve backed up the Rebels deeper than that if he’d punted from the Vol 44-yard line after three kneel plays lost three yards.
Tennessee’s third possession started at its 44-yard line. Three plays lost three yards (same as three kneel plays would have), then Darr punted to the Ole Miss 11-yard line. Tennessee’s fourth possession was another three-and-out, followed by a 52-yard Darr punt. The Vols’ fifth possession began at the Ole Miss 47 and resulted in a field goal but the sixth possession, beginning at the Vol 40, produced another three-and-out and another Darr punt.
Tennessee’s seventh possession began at its own 25-yard line. After two plays lost six yards, Justin Worley threw an interception that was returned to the Vol 35-yard line. Had Tennessee taken three knees and let Darr match Saturday night's net average of 44 yards per punt, Ole Miss would’ve taken over at its 34-yard line, instead of Tennessee’s 35 … from which point the Rebels marched to a touchdown and a 14-3 halftime lead. Had that Vol possession ended with a Darr punt instead of a Worley interception, Ole Miss’ halftime lead is probably 7-3, instead of 14-3.
The Vols gained one yard on their eighth possession before Darr punted 42 yards. Possession No. 9 saw Tennessee cross midfield only to lose nine yards on a double reverse at the Rebel 27-yard line that knocked it out of field-goal range. Darr then punted into the end zone. The 10th possession began at the Vol 8-yard line. Granted, this would be a tough spot to kneel three times, then punt. Still, it would’ve worked out better than what happened. Worley was intercepted again, with the return carrying to Tennessee’s 43-yard line. Had the Vols taken three knees and punted from the 5-yard line, a typical 44-yard Darr punt would’ve made the Rebs start from the Vol 49 … six yards farther from paydirt.
Tennessee’s 11th possession began at the 35-yard line. After a 10-yard holding penalty, an eight-yard sack and a no-gain run, Darr punted on fourth-and-28 at his 17-yard line. Three kneel plays would’ve allowed him to punt on fourth-and-13 at his 32 … a 15-yard improvement.
Possession No. 12 also began at the Vol 35-yard line. It ended when a fourth-down run lost four yards, giving Ole Miss possession at the Rebel 45-yard line … from which point the hosts advanced to their final touchdown. Three kneel plays and a 44-yard Darr punt from the Vol 32-yard line would’ve forced Ole Miss to start its final possession at the Rebel 24-yard line. That’s 21 yards farther from the Tennessee end zone. I’m guessing the Rebs wouldn’t have scored from there, so three kneel plays and a Darr punt could’ve prevented their TD at the end of the second half, just as it could’ve prevented their TD at the end of the first half. That makes it a 20-3 game, instead of a 34-3 game.
But wait. There’s still the matter of letting the kickoffs bound through the end zone, remember?
A touchback gives you the ball at your 25-yard line. So how many times did Tennessee benefit from trying to return a kickoff? Once. Evan Berry hauled back one kickoff 32 yards to the Vol 35-yard line. That was 10 yards better than letting the ball go through the end zone for a touchback.
On an earlier kickoff, however, Berry fumbled and Ole Miss recovered at the Vol 28-yard line. The Rebels scored their third touchdown of the game on the very next play.
To recap: If Tennessee’s offense had run three kneel plays and punted all game, Ole Miss might not have scored its last touchdown of the first half or its last touchdown of the second half. And if Tennessee had not attempted to return any kickoffs, Ole Miss would not have gotten a short-field touchdown following Berry’s fumble.
Insane as it sounds, relying on nothing but kneel plays and touchbacks, Tennessee might’ve lost 13-0 instead of 34-3.
Derek Barnett speaks after loss to Ole Miss