Sept. 27, 2009
BY DREW EDWARDS
Maybe it's growing pains. Maybe it's just the nature of the game. Or maybe it's the fact that so many younger players are on the field at the same time.
Whatever the reason, Tennessee's 34-23 victory over Ohio on Saturday night in Neyland Stadium had a two steps forward, one step back kind of feel.
"We did well at times, and other times our inconsistency showed up," UT coach Lane Kiffin said.
He was talking about Tennessee's offense, but it applied to every facet of the game on Saturday.
*A week after limiting No. 1 Florida's offense to just two plays of more than 20 yards, the Vols surrendered four plays of 20-plus yards to the Bobcats.
The last big play of the game for Ohio (2-2), a 59-yard pass to LaVon Brazill that set up a field goal, covered more than twice the yardage of any other play surrendered by the defense through three games.
* A defense that ranked fifth in the country entering the game and fourth nationally against the pass, surrendered 7 more yards of total offense and the same number of points against Ohio as it did against Florida last week in The Swamp.
*A week after keeping Florida special teams ace Brandon James out of the end zone, the Vols surrendered a 95-yard touchdown return to Chris Garrett.
*And an offense that executed almost perfectly in the two-minute drill for a field goal just before halftime, gained yards in fits and starts throughout the night.
It was a head-scratching kind of night for the Vols (2-2).
"We don't expect (inconsistency)," Kiffin said. "But in your first year, are you going to come out and be a consistent championship team when you've never played together before?
"It always helps if you're together longer, but that's not an excuse."
Injuries certainly didn't help the consistency, especially on defense.
At one point in the fourth quarter, the Vols had four true freshmen on the field at the same time and only five of its normal starting 11.
Safeties Darren Myles and Janzen Jackson both saw significant playing time, as did linebackers Greg King and Nigel Mitchell-Thornton.
Linebacker Nick Reveiz left in the third quarter with a serious knee injury, and defensive end Chris Walker (back) didn't play in the second half after giving the Vols the lead for good with a 7-yard interception return for a touchdown midway through the second quarter.
But that's not an excuse, either, said cornerback Brent Vinson.
"I think we've become accustomed to that," Vinson said. "It's football. Things like that are going to happen. It's my third season playing, and a whole bunch of crazy things have happened. You've just got to be expecting anything."
Kiffin said that's part of the reason freshmen received so many reps during fall camp. Linebacker Rico McCoy, a three-year starter at outside linebacker, says that the expectations - and the plays called - don't change because a player lacks game experience.
"Those guys get reps," McCoy said. "They get plenty of reps in practice. It's their time to step up and make plays. They might make a couple mistakes here and there, but they're expected to come in and make plays."
The most consistent part of Saturday's win was another strong performance from senior tailback Montario Hardesty, who finished with 140 yards rushing and a touchdown. Freshman tailback Bryce Brown added 56 yards rushing, and he caught two passes for 60 yards and a score.
Despite inconsistent play, the Vols are back to .500 heading back into SEC play at home next week against Auburn.
"It's a good to get a win," Kiffin said. "We haven't won since the opener. You can't get to 3-2 or 4-2 until you get to 2-2. So it's good to see us get the win."
It will also be good learning material, says guard Cory Sullins.
"Obviously nobody's satisfied at this point," he said. "The atmosphere in the locker room after the game, we're glad we got the win, but you can feel that everybody wants to get better.
"Everybody wasn't satisfied with the performance. It feels like we're ready to get back to work."