Several times over the last 36 hours I've considered writing a recap for Saturday's game. But Hooper already did a good job, and Joel did a good job, and Will did two good jobs. Being there was incredible--it's probably the best UT game, when rated for a combination of quality and importance, I've ever seen in person--and it feels fantastic to finally have a win over a good team for the first time in the entire careers of the seniors. But I don't know how to put all that into words, so all you'll get from me is the hashing out of what's looking better and what's looking worse.
- Making the plays that win the game. Tennessee has been close before. Many times. But in the last few years, victory has been just out of the Vols' grasp. We'll screw something up, or the other team will just make a fantastic play--the kind you can't defend. For the last few years, I've wondered why, with all the talent Tennessee has had, the Vols never make those kind of plays in crunch time. They've played close, but they've never made those plays that seal the deal. Saturday, Marquez North did. You cannot defend him more tightly than South Carolina did, but he made the catch anyways. Obviously, a consistent level of performance is an expectation, but when you sign a player-maker, you expect them to occasionally make the kind of plays that are just indefensible. Tennessee got that against South Carolina. And this discussion isn't all North either. It would've been easy enough to give up a first down to the Gamecocks on any of those key fourth quarter possessions. The D had played well, held South Carolina to 21, they can't be expected to be perfect. One mistake would be understandable. Would've lost the game, but would've been understandable. In the fourth quarter, they were perfect. South Carolina made no first downs, and the Tennessee defense made those plays that were missing against LSU in 2010 and Georgia last month. And they gave North a chance to do his thing.
- Press the kicking game. Field position was on Tennessee's side all day. And while the Vols didn't take advantage, scoring just three points on the five possessions that started at the 45 or better, they didn't give South Carolina many opportunities to take advantage of short fields either. The Gamecocks scored on two of their only three possessions that started at better than their own twenty-five. Their other eleven drives started at the average of their own 16. They scored seven points on those eleven drives. While the defense certainly gets some credit for preventing sustained drives, Michael Palardy deserves some player of the game consideration for pinning the Gamecocks inside their own twenty on SIX of his eight punts. Oh yeah, and he made three field goals, including the game-winner.
- Pass defense. Yes, there was one horrible breakdown. Justin Coleman was beaten over the top, and the safety help was nowhere to be found. The result was a 76-yard touchdown pass. But a pass defense doesn't have to be perfect to be trending up. Of the other 20 passes thrown by Connor Shaw, only six were completed, for a total of 85 yards. Even if there were a few drops thrown in there, and even if there was one horrible play, if the opposing quarterback is completing just a third of his passes, the secondary is doing their job. And the pass rush did theirs too. Shaw was sacked four times, including 2.5 by Marlon Walls, who played his best game in a Tennessee uniform. Quarterback pressure is a sight that hasn't been seen around here in far too long, and it is quite welcome.
- Game management. Butch Jones seems to have his finger right on the pulse of his football team. Two weeks ago, when the offense was clicking and the defense struggling, he went for three fourth down conversions. Tennessee converted all three. This week, when the defense had gained momentum and the offense was struggling to move the ball, he made a controversial call to punt the ball away late in the fourth quarter, and it paid off. And he then proceeded to, unusual as it is for a football coach, competently manage the clock. Many coaches seem to act as though a timeout is worth ten extra seconds if you save it for the last two minutes, but Jones used all three with three minutes remaining, and the Vols got the ball back with plenty of time on the clock. And once they ran it inside the five, they milked the clock to three seconds, spiked the ball, and kicked a field goal that gave Tennessee a lead and South Carolina no time to come back.
- Opportunity. Butch Jones got his first big win. We figured in the preseason he'd have five opportunities, with maybe one more if a team on the November schedule came out of nowhere and had a good year. Right now, it looks like two of them have done so. In the initial BCS standings, three future Vols opponents appear in the top 16. Not only is Alabama #1, Missouri is #5, and Auburn is #11. Tennessee doesn't have one chance for a second big win. Tennessee has three. And if the Vols can continue trending up after the last two games, they'll have a legitimate shot at grabbing a second signature win.
- Checking all the boxes. A good SEC coach has success at the lower levels. Check. A good SEC coach recruits at an elite level. Check. A good SEC coach can transform the attitude of a program. Check. A good SEC coach gets wins over other good SEC coaches. That's been the big question ever since the recruiting class took off this summer. And now it is a fourth check. Butch Jones has done everything he needs to do to indicate he will be a good SEC coach. This is not an arrival--he hasn't won championships here yet. But after Saturday, he's given fans every reason to believe he'll be in contention for them before his time in orange is done.
- Orange pants. I've always liked orange pants on the road, but I've been critical of the all-orange look. I thought it looked terrible in the SEC Championship in 2007. It was just too overwhelming. Saturday's uniforms looked good. Maybe it was seeing them in person instead of on TV, or maybe the new striping just makes that drastic a difference. But the Vols looked good on Saturday. And they won. I generally support uniforms in which Tennessee wins.
- Halftime adjustments. Against Georgia, the Vols offensive staff stayed a step ahead of the Georgia defensive staff for the entire second half. That didn't happen against South Carolina. The only time Tennessee's offense looked dominant was on the second touchdown drive in the second quarter. The Vols kept using a slow-developing run up the middle, and it kept working. Five times, for at least five yards on each attempt and an average of more than ten. In the second half, South Carolina consistently stuffed it, and Tennessee didn't really find a replacement (unless you count "chuck it deep and wait for Marquez North to do something ridiculous"). And the defense found their game again in the fourth quarter, but they also didn't look good immediately after halftime. South Carolina didn't punt in the third quarter and engineered touchdown drives of 66 and 70 yards. The Vols recovered enough to win, but the Gamecocks certainly had the better of the halftime adjustments.
- Quieting Clowney. We heard a lot before the game about how Antonio Richardson shut Jadeveon Clowney down for 59 minutes last year. It didn't happen this year. Clowney's name was called early and often against Tennessee, making 4.5 tackles and 2.5 for loss. It wasn't a dominant performance, but he wasn't exactly shut down. And Richardson (though I'm not sure whether he was on Clowney at the time) also took a 15-yard illegal hands-to-the-face penalty that took Tennessee out of range for a potentially game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter. Tennessee has plenty of talent on the offensive line, but against South Carolina, they were not the stars.
- Defending a running quarterback. Trouble with running quarterbacks is not new in Knoxville, but Connor Shaw hurt Tennessee much more with his legs than his arm. Shaw ran for 78 yards on 19 carries (95 yards on 15 carries when the sacks are removed), including the key plays on both second half touchdown drives. On the first, Shaw scrambled for nine yards on a vital 4th and 8, and on the second, a 29-yard carry headlined a 70 yard drive. The Vols largely kept Shaw from getting to the outside, but they had trouble leaving running lanes up the middle, and Shaw took advantage.