IT's Take: Vanderbilt

Get the opinions of the InsideTennessee staff after a 24-17 win in Nashville.

PARKER

Danny Parker's thoughts

Somewhere in the Pacific Northwest there's a dog limping around an apartment in severe pain. Why? Because Don Yates is an angry man. Why is Don so upset? Because Vanderbilt did not defend the Commodore State (or Nashville for that matter) against rival Tennessee, falling 24-17.

Joshua Dobbs said it best on Dudley Field afterwards while speaking to reporters, noting that his team found a way to win. The sophomore was below average throwing the football (11 of 20 for 92 yards with three sacks and two interceptions) but ground out 91 rushing yards on 21 attempts with two scores.

With no Jalen Hurd, no Marquez North and no Josh Smith, Dobbs had no choice but to take the game into his own hands. The Tennessee defense and special teams did the rest.

Cameron Sutton's 76-yard punt return for a first-quarter score was a difference maker as he did an impressive job of shifting field and dancing around Vandy tacklers to get daylight before sprinting for the house call connection. Interceptions by Justin Coleman, Todd Kelly Jr. and Brian Randolph were vital (as is any turnover in a one-score game) and the secondary had one of its best games of 2014.

A makeshift lineup saw Kenneth Bynum, Alex Ellis, Marlin Lane and Vic Wharton see extensive playing time. Who would have guessed any of that a month ago? That's a major component in the pride that coach Butch Jones has with Team 118 as it's had to battle through injuries, suspensions and youth.

One team goal was improving from 5-7 — check. Another goal was reaching the postseason — check. Now Tennessee and its coaches must capitalize in every way possible on what they've been able to accomplish after having gone through so much.

GRADES

Defense —B

Offense — D

Special teams — A

MOORE

Randy Moore's thoughts

Tennessee was one play from breaking open Saturday night’s game at Vanderbilt. Fresh from a 75-yard touchdown drive that bumped the lead to 24-10 late in the third quarter, the Vols needed only to stop Vandy on third and 14 at the Big Orange 44-yard line.

They didn’t. Patton Robinette scrambled 19 yards for a first down, and the Commodores scored three plays later, narrowing the gap to 24-17. Josh Dobbs was sacked for a 14-yard loss on the second snap of Tennessee’s next possession, and the Vols’ play selection thereafter was so conservative it made Rush Limbaugh look like a left-wing radical.

The bottom line, of course, is that Tennessee hung on to win 24-17, squaring its record at 6-6 and qualifying for a bowl bid. Still, that doesn’t negate the fact that the Vols played like the stuff my three puppies leave in piles all over the backyard.

Dobbs, who had a horrible game throwing the ball in windy conditions last fall against Vandy at Neyland Stadium, struggled with the wind again Saturday at Dudley Field, completing just 11 of 20 attempts for 92 yards with two interceptions. With star running back Jalen Hurd sidelined by a first-quarter injury and Marlin Lane generally ineffective, Dobbs had to win the game with his legs. He did, rushing 21 times for 91 yards and two touchdowns.

The fact Tennessee managed just 262 total yards and 17 offensive points against one of the worst defenses in college football is abysmal. Yes, the Vols were without injured receivers Marquez North and Josh Smith, without injured center Mack Crowder and without Hurd for most of the game. Still, two offensive TDs and one field goal against Vandy was really lame.

Tennessee wasn’t much better on the other side of the ball. Minus suspended middle linebacker A.J. Johnson, the Vols seem lost at times. Vanderbilt may not have an offensive player capable of starting for another SEC team, yet it moved the ball effectively in spurts. If not for another standout performance by Vol freshman Derek Barnett (who seemed to be in Vandy’s backfield all game) and three awful throws that were intercepted by Tennessee defensive backs, the Commodores might have mustered enough offense to win the game.

On a day when the Vols’ offense and defense struggled mightily, however, their special teams saved the day. The two biggest plays of the game were Cameron Sutton’s 76-yard punt return for the game’s opening score and Matt Darr’s 60-yard punt that rolled out of bounds at the Vandy 2-yard line with 7:41 left. Another big special-team’s play came from freshman Aaron Medley, who nailed a clutch 36-yard field goal to give the Vols a 10-0 first-quarter lead.

The fact Tennessee did just enough at Dudley Field to become bowl-eligible has Vol fans celebrating – as they should be. But it doesn’t alter the fact the Big Orange probably would’ve lost Saturday’s game if not for some game-changing plays by the special-teams guys.

GRADES

Defense — C-

Offense — D

Special teams — A

Steven Peake's thoughts

Tennessee has been competitive in nearly every game this season but in this business only wins and losses are what define you. A bowl berth would be a sign of progress. A good way to do it is get a win over an in-state rival that has beaten the Vols the last two seasons

Almost all of us projected a Tennessee blow-out. This was Vanderbilt’s super bowl and Tennessee was going to get the Commodore’s best shot. But even that should not have been good enough for Vandy to keep it close. It was and things got a little scary when Vanderbilt moved the ball to midfield needing a touchdown plus a two-point conversion for the win. The bowl berth that seemed imminent was somehow in doubt.

Of course Tennessee would hang on for the seven point win and that is all they had to do. A sixth win and now a bowl game upcoming is huge for a team full of freshmen. At the risk of sounding like I am sugar-coating an ugly win, Tennessee fans should be happy. Not happy with how Tennessee played but that they didn’t lose.

Tennessee’s offensive options got very limited when freshman running back Jalen Hurd went out for the game with a possible concussion. Cam Sutton helped the cause with a punt return for a touchdown and had it not been for that, the Vols would have been fortunate to get to the locker room tied with the Commodores.

The defense played so well for the first quarter and change that 10-points seemed like enough to win the game. After an 88-yard drive the defense stiffened up again. An interception by Todd Kelly Jr. led to the best drive of the game for Tennessee. The Vols went 75 yards in under three minutes to take their largest lead of the game up to that point. The 7-play drive, capped off by Joshua Dobbs’ second touchdown, saw the Vols move the ball forward consistently with three big plays from Marlin Lane.

The Tennessee defense would step-up many times in the second half. Patton Robinette became very familiar with Curt Maggitt and the secondary got a third interception. But the offense could not do their part to put the ‘Dores away.

It was as ugly as it could have possibly gotten but at the end of the day Tennessee is going bowling. In victory formation, Butch Jones took a knee as well. The head coach had tears in his eyes as he got the team together for a picture. It was the happiest I have seen this group as they sung along with the fans who will follow them wherever the 13th game will be scheduled. Progress in this process.

GRADES

Defense —B

Offense —C

Special teams —A

WOODWARD

Josh Woodward's thoughts

A win is a win, plus Tennessee is going bowling. I will credit Vanderbilt they laid it all on the line for this one.

Offensively it was ugly; Josh Dobbs had a terrible game throwing the ball, his legs made the difference for Tennessee. The Big Orange are just missing so much on offense with Hurd going out after the first series with a possible concussion, that really hurt what Tennessee had planned. Pig Howard had a god game, but the rest of the receivers were terrible. The offensive line struggled like they did against Missouri, Tennessee had to use the tight ends to help block.

Defensively I thought they did what they had to do, they really miss AJ Johnson in the middle. Jakub Johnson didn’t play very well, they finally replaced him with Kenny Bynum who did well. I would look for Bynum in the bowl game. Derek Barnett continues to dominate, he is a three an done kind of player. Todd Kelly made the play of the game with that interception on the sideline.

I really never expected Cameron Sutton to return a punt for a touchdown, but he made a heck of a run. Evan Berry also made a smart play by not taking a kick off and letting it go out of bounds, those kind of plays will win you some games down the road. Medley was solid on kick offs and field goals. Matt Darr had another good night punting for the Vols.

GRADES

Defense--B

Offense—D

Special teams—A

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