‘Could’ and ‘should’ give way to ‘is’
The first half Saturday at Neyland Stadium seemed like what this Tennessee team could be. Or maybe what it should be.
The second half, overtime, all the crucial moments in between, that’s what this Tennessee team is — and has been under Derek Dooley.
“That was a tough one,” Dooley said after another could’ve-been win. “We played our tails off and we had a lot of opportunities to win the game — a lot.”
“A lot” included a 21-7 lead at the half. Missouri had 64 total yards in the first two quarters. The Tigers had four first downs. They punted three times. Its offense was just bad enough to make Tennessee’s defense look competent.
Tennessee’s offense in the opening half did what it’s done for the better part of the season — 383 total yards and three touchdowns, 20 first downs to Mizzou’s four, 98 rushing yards, two receivers over 100 yards and a in-control 14-point lead.
“We held them to 14 points all the way down to the last drive with not a lot of yards,” a defeated Dooley said after the loss. “We dominated the first half, but that doesn’t matter.”
Dooley’s right. It didn’t matter. That was the “could be,” the “should be.” The second half, that was the pitiful present, the wretched reality.
Missouri’s Kendial Lawrence went through the left side and 77 untouched yards later was in the end zone on the first play out of the locker room.
A half of football and four overtimes later, it was a 51-48 Missouri final, leaving a stunned but not shocked home crowd and more questions than the home team’s head coach could answer.
“They changed a little bit on the run game,” Dooley said of the second half.
Missouri adjusted, Tennessee reverted. Missouri changed just enough, Tennessee went back to reality just in time.
The Tigers ended the game with 454 yards of total offense, 48 points, 20 first downs and an all-too-familiar come-from-behind win against a Dooley-led Tennessee team.
Tennessee answered Missouri’s quick touchdown out of the half with a Tyler Bray touchdown pass to Alton “Pig” Howard later in the third quarter. The opponent that looked inferior in the first half wouldn’t go away, though.
Instead the Vols let Missouri go nine plays and 65 yards the other direction for another Lawrence touchdown to cut the lead down to 28-21. Missouri was hanging around. Dooley’s team was hanging it’s head.
Yet despite the defense, or lack there of, the lead held.
Tennessee had the ball with just over 12 minutes left, but couldn’t put comfort back in the lead. With five minutes, 32 seconds left the Vols used two Bray incompletions and a punt to waste less than a minute off the clock.
“We didn’t get it done,” Dooley said.
Missouri did. And with the ball back and 4:32 on the clock, the script began to read a rerun.
Twice Missouri faced fourth-and-long on the final drive. Twice the Tigers converted. On fourth-and-9 it was a 17-yard chain-moving completion. On fourth-and-12 it was a 25-yard touchdown pass to send the game to it’s overtime fate.
Out of options and out of faith, Dooley opted to go for it on fourth down in the fourth and final overtime. Tennessee couldn’t convert like Missouri had.
“It was fourth-and-three, and I didn’t have a lot of confidence that we were stopping them on the other side,” Dooley said of the decision.
That’s the reality. A coach that couldn’t trust his defense, an offense that can never score enough points.
Forget the “could be” and “should be.” At this point, forget the “if.”
After reality set in Saturday, it became just a matter of “when.”
Grant Ramey is a sportswriter at The Daily Times. He can be reached at 865-981-1145 or (email@example.com)