Takeaways from the Vols’ win at Bristol

Tennessee got over a sluggish start during the Battle at Bristol to thump Virginia Tech, 45-24. Robert Hughes gives his most important takeaways from the Vols’ performance.

Photo by Sumner Gilliam

Tennessee players Ethan Wolf and Alexis Johnson celebrate after the Battle at Bristol on Sept. 10, 2016. Photo by Sumner Gilliam.

After some early problems getting the engines up and running, Tennessee was able to race past Virginia Tech in a 45-24 victory on Saturday and wave the checkered flag.

The Volunteers, as they did against Appalachian State, got off to an abysmal start. Poor offensive line play and defensive miscues allowed the Hokies to jump out to an early 14-0 lead in the first quarter. A Virginia Tech fumble early in the second quarter by gave the Vols the jump-start they needed to get in gear. After that point, Tennessee never let off the throttle.

Here are a few takeaways from Tennessee’s victory.

Tennessee’s offense will be fine this season.

Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord faced ruthless criticism after Tennessee’s win against Appalachian State for the team’s inability to pass the ball downfield, along with the over-reliance on the run game. On Saturday against Virginia Tech, Tennessee tried too hard to create downfield passes in the first quarter and relied very little on the rushing threat, which also proved ineffective. After three drives ended in punts, Tennessee began to mix up the play-calling with read options and short passes, and the offense never looked back. If Tennessee can play within themselves and keep Josh Dobbs as a running threat, no defense can stop the Vols. Tennessee has explosive receivers in Josh Malone and Preston Williams, but isn’t made to beat teams deep consistently. The option with premier rushers Dobbs, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara sets up the passing game, which is what the Volunteers were able to do Saturday night. If DeBord replicates that play calling for the rest of the season, Tennessee fans won’t need to worry about the offense.

Third downs are a problem.

Tennessee’s defense couldn’t get off the field in the first quarter, allowing Virginia Tech to convert on four-out-of-five third downs. The Vols stuffed the Hokies on first and second down, but let Hokie quarterback Jerod Evans make plays with his legs, ultimately leading to first downs. On the offensive side of the ball, Tennessee converted an less-than-ideal 23 percent of its third downs. Although the defense only allowed two third-down conversions in the second half, the offense was only able to convert two third downs in that time frame.

The Vols’ defense is a turnover-forcing machine.

Tennessee recovered five fumbles on Saturday. Yes, five. It’s hard enough to force five fumbles, but to have the awareness (and luck) to recover the ball all five times is impressive. Shy Tuttle’s recovery on a high snap was especially impressive because he had to beat an offensive lineman, a quarterback and a running back to the ball — and did just that (you can see that play at the 3:27 mark here). Although one fumble recovery came off of a muffed punt, it still took a clutch play by Micah Abernathy to save the ball before it skipped out of bounds. Like last week against Appalachian State, it took a turnover to give the offense new life. The Vols’ defense likes to pride itself in being the “Orange Swarm,” and it earned that name in Bristol. Gang tackling and relentless pursuit of the ball gave Tennessee extra chances on offense, and that proved to be the winning edge.

Final takeaway

Tennessee was able to overcome early adversity on both sides of the ball to eventually zoom past Virginia Tech, 45-24. With an impressive win over a quality opponent on the biggest stage in college football history, Tennessee is poised to reclaim its spot as a national powerhouse.

Edited by Nathan Odom

Featured image by Sumner Gilliam