KNOXVILLE — Tennessee’s first drive in Saturday night’s double overtime loss to BYU was a great start for a team that desperately needed one.
Unfortunately for the Vols, the devil was in the details.
Tennessee scored a touchdown, but it was an outlier in a situation that is becoming a glaring problem in coach Jeremy Pruitt’s second season.
The six points count the same as any other touchdown, but they resulted from a lucky play on which quarterback Jarrett Guarantano made a bad pass that got deflected into Jauan Jennings’ hands in the end zone. What followed the rest of the evening was closer to reality.
The Vols advanced to the BYU 30-yard line or started a drive on the 25 six more times and scored only one touchdown. On two of those drives, the Vols turned it over on downs.
Had they scored a field goal on either of those two possessions or scored a touchdown on the three drives on which they kicked field goals they never would have been in the position they were late in regulation when the Cougars gained 64 yards on a miracle play and then kicked a field goal to force overtime.
“We just have to finish,” running back Ty Chandler said. “We have to have the willpower to get the ball in the end zone. That’s the biggest thing. We need to finish in the end zone no matter how it gets done.”
Tennessee (0-2) has scored four touchdowns and three field goals on eight red zone possessions this season. The Vols’ 87.5% scoring rate ranks 56th in the nation. Last year they scored 19 touchdowns and nine field goals on 35 trips to the red zone. Their 80% scoring rate ranked 92nd in the nation about of 129 teams.
Not scoring at all is the worst outcome, but even settling for field goals is a negative in Pruitt’s eyes.
The most significant blocking the Vols from succeeding in the short field is their long-standing issues with their offensive line. Teams tighten up when there is less field to defend, and that often means starting with more players near the line of scrimmage.
Tennessee’s running game was above average until it got to the 30-yard line, but then it stalled in a big way. On 33 run plays that started outside the BYU 30, the Vols ran for 212 yards — an average of 7.1 yards per carry. On the 16 run plays that started inside the BYU 30, the Vols gained 30 yards — an average of 1.9 yards per carry.
The worst example of that came with less than five minutes remaining in regulation. Tennessee had 4th-and-1 on the BYU 30 and called a reverse run for wide receiver Josh Palmer. Palmer failed to pick up the first down, and that prevented the Vols from taking more time off the clock and/or adding to their 16-13 lead.
In the second overtime the Vols barely gave themselves a chance to get into the end zone. Chandler ran for one yard on the first play and caught a 1-yard pass on the third.
When the Cougars got it back they ran for 13 yards and then seven yards before Ty’Son Williams scored on a 5-yard run on which he pushed a pile the last several yards for the winning touchdown.
“For the teams that are good in the red zone, lots of times they’ll line up and run through everybody, kind of like that team just did to us on that last play,” Pruitt said. “Right now, we’re not knocking people off the ball ...
“We’ve got to be more physical. We’ve got to knock them off the ball. We don’t have really big backs. We’ve got guys that weigh 200 pounds or 190 pounds. We’ve got to knock them back.”