Last Saturday, Tennessee dropped its first contest of the season in a 27-13 loss to Georgia in Athens. Now, the No. 5 Vols (8-1, 4-1 SEC) will look to rebound in their home finale against Missouri (4-5, 2-4 SEC).
After claiming the No. 1 ranking in the country, Tennessee immediately faced its toughest challenge of the year in a trip to play Georgia. The Vols jumped out to a 3-0 lead after forcing an early fumble but struggled for the remainder of the game.
The Bulldogs surged for 24 first-half points while holding Tennessee to just six. Following the halftime break, both teams struggled offensively as Georgia held on to win 27-13.
For the first time in the season, Hendon Hooker was held to no touchdowns in the contest. He threw for just 195 yards and an interception. On the ground, he was sacked six times and only totaled 17 rushing yards.
His favorite targets Cedric Tillman, Jalin Hyatt and Bru McCoy struggled to get open resulting in a combined 169 receiving yards on 19 receptions. Out of the backfield, Jaylen Wright ran for 69 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries and Jabari Small totaled eight yards on three carries.
Defensively, Tennessee struggled to stop Georgia from converting on big plays. Stetson Bennett threw for 257 yards and two touchdowns. Ladd McConkey was the leading receiver with 94 yards and a touchdown. Kenny McIntosh also ran for 52 yards and earned 57 receiving yards.
Overall, the Vols looked flat against the Bulldogs. The offense struggled and the defense gave up too many big plays. It wasn’t complete domination but Georgia was clearly the better team on Saturday.
After struggling a year ago, Missouri is in a similar situation this season. They’re off to a 4-5 start with bowl game hopes looking slim. Wins over Vanderbilt and South Carolina have been overshadowed by losses. However, the Tigers have kept a majority of their SEC games close. They lost to Auburn by three, Georgia by four, Florida by seven and Kentucky by four.
What has kept this team in games is a stout defense. Missouri currently ranks fourth in yards and points allowed per game in the SEC. An almost equally effective run and pass stop have led to a majority of the SEC struggling to consistently move the ball. Jaylon Carlies has stood out on the defense with a team-high 49 tackles and two interceptions. Isaiah McGuire has also made his name known with four sacks and two forced fumbles.
However, what makes Missouri such a below-average team is its offense. The Tigers rank second to last in yards and points per game in the SEC. Under Eli Drinkwitz, the run game has always been the priority, but without talent in the backfield, it has become an average attack. Brady Cook commands the offense but has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns on the season. Dominic Lovett and Luther Burden III have been bright spots at wide receiver, but an inconsistent pass game has left them short of their potential.
Despite this mediocre roster meeting below-average results, Drinkwitz was extended by the university. The surprising move will likely keep him around the SEC for a few more years which may be news worth celebrating for Vols fans.
Vols vs. Tigers History
Tennessee and Missouri met for the first time on the gridiron in 2012 and have played in every season since. The series is currently knotted at 5-5 but the Vols hold a three-game streak dating back to Jeremey Pruitt’s teams.
Last year, Tennessee ran Missouri out of Memorial Stadium in a 62-24 demolition. The win marked Josh Heupel’s first SEC win and put the Vols on track to a successful season. Hendon Hooker applied pressure early and finished with 225 yards and three touchdowns. Velus Jones Jr. and Tillman received the majority of the load with 79 and 73 receiving yards, respectively. The pair and JaVonta Payton all caught touchdowns.
Where the Vols did their most damage, though, was through the run game. The team ran for 458 yards and five touchdowns with little resistance. The team’s average yards per carry was an astonishing 7.8. Tiyon Evans led the group with 156 rushing yards and three touchdowns including a 92-yard scamper.
On defense, Missouri struggled to move the ball. They turned it over twice and only scored 24 points because of the number of possessions Tennessee’s explosive offense gave them. Aaron Beasley led the team in tackles with eight including 1.5 tackles for loss.
5 Keys to the Game
Put the loss behind you
The loss to Georgia was a gut punch to a season that was previously perfect. However, it can’t take the wind out of Tennessee’s sails. The Vols need to leave the loss in the past and work towards winning their final three games of the season. An 11-1 record puts Tennessee in a great spot to still make the playoffs. Dominating wins over these opponents wouldn’t hurt its chances, either.
This is a common theme for this team. Scoring early leads to success for the rest of the game. If the Vols can get on the board fast, it’ll not only calm down nerves and build an advantage but also force Missouri to play from behind. If you can force Cook to try to make plays with his arm, you’ll find success.
Limit big plays
Missouri isn’t necessarily a big-play offense, but Tennessee’s defense has struggled at times to prevent them. After giving up big shots against Georgia, the Vols need to hold the Tigers in check similar to what happened against Kentucky. Making Missouri fight for first downs and keeping them out of Tennessee territory will be a big factor in the Tigers’ offensive success.
Get to the quarterback
One thing Missouri has actually done a decent job of this year is protecting its quarterback. Tennessee will need to change that with pass rushes that either result in sacks or throwaways. They can’t give Cook too much time in the pocket putting pressure on the secondary. Making him uncomfortable will take any effect he has out of the equation.
Honor the seniors
This will be the final time a lot of Tennessee players will take the field in Neyland Stadium. Fans need to get there early and show support for the players that have made this season magical. This also needs to carry over to the game. Fans need to be disruptive on defense and make things difficult for Missouri. A loud crowd from start to finish will make a real difference in this game.
After dropping their first game of the year last week, the Vols should easily get back on track on Saturday. Although Missouri has done a good job hanging with teams this year, its record shows its true colors. Tennessee is a better team from top-to-bottom, players and coaches alike.
Hooker may not have as effective of a day as we’re used to against a solid Tigers’ defense, but he still shouldn’t have too much trouble. He will likely eclipse 250 yards and find the endzone through the air multiple times. Tillman and Hyatt will get back on track as they find holes in the Missouri secondary and come away with big plays.
After creating an early lead, Tennessee will turn to the ground. Jaylen Wright and Jabari Smal will hammer it through the defense for the majority of the second half as they run the clock and move the ball slowly down the field. The team as a whole will combine for over 200 rushing yards.
Defensively, Tennessee will come away with a turnover and make things difficult for Missouri. They will get on the board a couple of times, but it won’t matter as the lead will be stretched out to an insurmountable margin.
Tennessee – 42
Missouri – 17
Game Time and Coverage
The matchup will kick off in Neyland Stadium at noon EST. The game will air on CBS and TNJN will have more coverage following the game.
Ryan Sylvia is the Sports Editor at TNJN. He is a senior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville majoring in journalism and electronic media. Although he spent most of his life being raised outside of Philadelphia, he was born in Knoxville, and he is happy to be back home. Ryan has had a love for sports from an early age, and he found his love for writing in high school while taking journalism classes. He hopes to find a job involving both his passions as a sports journalist after graduation. To reach Ryan, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org