With first-teamer Justin Worley unable to play and second-teamer Nathan Peterman unable to move the chains, the Vol brain trust turned to third-teamer Joshua Dobbs for the third possession of Game 8 with fourth-ranked Alabama. What happened next was a little bit of magic.
Though clearly the most erratic passer of the three scholarship QBs, Dobbs' mobility more than offset that deficiency versus the Tide.
Suddenly, an offensive line that couldn’t protect became competent. Dobbs was sacked just one time over the game’s final three quarters, whereas Worley was sacked seven times a week earlier against Ole Miss.
Suddenly, wide receivers and tight ends who had been on lock-down found time to get separation.
Suddenly, an offense that had gone nine quarters against FBS competition without a touchdown scored 20 points in three periods versus one of the premier defenses in college football.
All of these positive developments could be traced to one source: Josh Dobbs’ mobility. The sophomore burned Bama for 100 gross yards, and his 75 net yards on 19 carries represented the most by a Vol quarterback since Tee Martin posted 81 against Syracuse on Sept. 5, 1998. The impact of Dobbs' fancy footwork was duly noted by Nick Saban.
“I thought their quarterback, number 11, really did a good job in the game,” Bama’s head man said. “His athleticism gave us some problems. (We) had trouble containing him a few times. They did a nice job with some of the quarterback runs they had built into their offense, which was a problem for us.”
That shouldn’t be surprising. Saban’s infrequent losses almost always occur against teams that feature a dual-threat quarterback. Auburn’s Cam Newton stemmed the Tide in 2010. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel beat Bama in 2012 and Auburn’s Nick Marshall turned the trick in 2013.
Figuring “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” Saban is utilizing a mobile quarterback of his own this fall. Blake Sims burned the Vols Saturday night with 42 net rushing yards on six carries. He also bought enough time with his elusiveness in the pocket to torch the Vols for 286 passing yards, helping the Tide convert on 11 of 15 third-down tries.
“We lost contain on the quarterback,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones conceded. “You have to keep him and maintain him in the pocket, and we weren’t able to do that.”
Fortunately for Tennessee, Bama wasn’t able to contain the Vols’ quarterback, either.
Noting that Dobbs “provided a spark for us,” Jones added: “He adds another element in terms of the run game. Any time you have a running quarterback, that poses another threat to the defense in terms of gaps…. It adds a whole other element and dimension offensively.”
God knows, Tennessee’s patchwork offense needs all of the elements and dimensions it can muster. If you throw out the glorified scrimmage against Chattanooga of the Football Championship Subdivision, the Vols' previous two meaningful games saw them manage nine points in a home loss to Florida and three points in a mauling at Ole Miss. Compared to those outings, hanging 20 points on Bama represented an offensive explosion.
Dobbs conceded that his mobility “opens up a lot,” before humbly adding: “Our line did a good job of making holes for me. We also have Jalen Hurd and Marlin Lane, which are two dynamic backs, and we have good weapons on the outside, so we're just able to use everyone.”
Given the dramatic improvement in Tennessee’s offense with Dobbs at the controls, many fans are wondering: Why wasn’t he playing all along?
In the coaching staff’s defense, Dobbs had a horrible preseason throwing the ball. Those of us who cover practice on a regular basis can attest that he clearly was a distant third behind Worley and Peterman in terms of accuracy. What Dobbs showed Saturday night, however, suggests he is a “gamer” who elevates his level of play when the bright lights are shining. He missed badly on a few throws (particularly the slant to a wide-open Marquez North that should've been an easy touchdown) but still managed to complete 19 of 32 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns.
Even if Worley’s injured shoulder heals quickly, Dobbs needs to be the starting quarterback the rest of the way. Without him, Tennessee’s offense sputters. With him, it just might be productive enough to win every game left on the schedule.
Joshua Dobbs post-game