The No. 9 Tennessee Volunteers came out dull in a disappointing 20-13 overtime win against the Appalachian State Mountaineers. The Vols’ fans, coaches and players had plenty to say about Team 120’s shortcomings, and there’s plenty of criticism to be made.
Let’s take a look at how each position group performed in the near-upset:
After being at the center of all the Vols’ offseason hype, Josh Dobbs struggled in his first game under the lights in 2016. The senior signal-caller was unable to find any consistency throughout the game. He completed a decent 16-of-29 passes, but offensive coordinator Mike DeBord and Dobbs never got the offense into sync.
His two best throws were elite. He placed a nice deep ball to junior wide receiver Josh Malone for a 67-yard score and Tennessee’s lone touchdown in regulation, and his pass to Preston Williams in the back of the end zone that ended up being overturned was on the money. However, his decision making and overall performance was subpar at best.
Even though he’s been called one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the SEC, Dobbs failed to produce on the ground aside from his efforts in overtime, finishing with negative four yards rushing.
Running Backs: B-
Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, something of a “thunder and lightning” duo, make up one of the country’s most dynamic rushing threats. However, the Vols’ one-two punch was more quiet than usual Thursday night. For the most part, the Mountaineers stopped Hurd from busting through the front seven and breaking a big run. Kamara only got six carries, but when he did carry the ball, he was limited from getting around the corner and into the secondary.
Despite questionable protection from the offensive line, Hurd broke the century mark, rushing for 110 yards on 28 carries. The lone touchdown on the ground came from Hurd recovering Dobbs’ fumble on his leap for the end zone in overtime.
The duo didn’t produce as usual, but the fault isn’t all theirs.
At the beginning of the game, it looked like sophomore Preston Williams was going to have the first breakout performance of his career. But after a quick start and a near-touchdown catch in the back of the end zone that was overturned, Williams failed to make any more of an impact. Instead, Josh Malone led the team in receiving with just two catches, although one was a 67-yard touchdown to tie the game in the fourth quarter.
Along with Williams, senior receiver Josh Smith also had a catch overturned.
The receivers didn’t make a big impact on the game, but two big plays were overturned and the offense struggled to find its rhythm during the entire game.
Offensive Line: D
After being expected to provide formidable protection for Tennessee’s high-octane offense, the line struggled to open up space for the offense to succeed. Hurd didn’t have opportunities to make it through the first level of the defense and Dobbs often didn’t have sufficient time to make his reads. The Mountaineers reached the quarterback for two sacks and broke up multiple plays before they developed.
Granted, left tackle Drew Richmond was playing his first collegiate game and the Vols’ starting right tackle, sophomore Chance Hall, is out with an injury. However, it was still surprising how much the line struggled against Appalachian State.
Defensive Line: C
The Vols’ most talented unit looked absolutely dismayed the entire game. App State’s offensive schemes left them in limbo, and they rarely reached the backfield in time to disrupt option plays. They didn’t record a single sack, and Mountaineer running back Marcus Cox had the performance of the game, rushing for 115 yards. Cox continually made impressive plays to keep them in the game.
Cortez McDowell and Darrin Kirkland Jr. led the team in tackling and stepped up big in the absence of the ring leader of the Vols’ defense. Star linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin was ejected in the first quarter after a targeting call on a hit during a punt return. Losing a leading tackler and vocal leader was a large obstacle to overcome, but Cortez McDowell filled the gap well. His nine tackles were a career-high and his playing time against Appalachian State was the most he’s ever had for the Vols.
Along with the defensive line, the Vols’ linebackers had some issues finishing tackles, often leaving it to the secondary. But, for the most part, it was a good performance. Especially without Reeves-Maybin.
Defensive backs: A
The redeeming factor of this matchup was the Vols’ secondary. Micah Abernathy, in his first start at safety, finished with eight tackles, good enough for second on the team. Abernathy stepped up and closed off multiple plays, essentially becoming a brick wall. The Mountaineers rarely moved the ball past him.
Cam Sutton, making up for his muffed punt in the first quarter, completely changed the momentum of the game with a diving interception in the third quarter. Both Sutton and Abernathy added a tackle for loss as well. To complete the performance, the Volunteers only allowed 108 yards through the air.
In short, the secondary stepped up big — making play-saving tackles and game-saving plays, including Abernathy’s swat to end the game in OT.
Special Teams: B+
Aaron Medley was the only source of points for Tennessee until the fourth quarter, drilling both of his field goals. Although normally a wild card, Medley was reliable in the opener.. Trevor Daniel continued his impressive work, averaging 49.2 yards per punt. Evan Berry added a momentum-shifting 41-yard return in his one and only chance to take a kickoff out of the end zone.
The only blunder on special teams was Cam Sutton’s muffed punt, which seemed to suck the confidence out of the team early on. The Vols quickly went from getting a quick stop to losing the ball and allowing a touchdown..
Overall, Medley kept the Vols in the game when they couldn’t score otherwise, and that deserves credit.
Edited by Adam Milliken
Featured image by Hayley Pennesi, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics
Dalton, a firm believer that sporting events are best spent on Twitter, is an Assistant Sports Editor for TNJN and a sophomore studying Journalism at the University of Tennessee. Two of his favorite pastimes include beating his roommates at 2k and remaining in awe of the amount of stories fellow editor David Bradford writes. Twitter: @dk_writes