KNOXVILLE — The loss that may end up sealing Tennessee coach Derek Dooley’s fate followed a familiar script.
Once again, Tennessee had victory within its grasp against a Southeastern Conference opponent. Once again, the Volunteers couldn’t hang on.
“We just didn’t make the plays that we needed to make at the end of the game,” Dooley said Saturday after the Vols blew a two-touchdown halftime lead and fell 51-48 to Missouri in the fourth overtime session.
Dooley already was facing plenty of pressure even before this collapse. Now his future is even more precarious. The Vols (4-6, 0-6 SEC) must win at Vanderbilt on Saturday and beat Kentucky on Nov. 24 just to finish the regular season with a .500 record.
In three seasons at Tennessee, Dooley owns a 15-20 overall record that includes a 4-18 mark in SEC competition. The Vols have lost 13 of their last 14 conference games, with the lone win coming at home against Vanderbilt in overtime last season.
This was the season the Vols had planned to reassert themselves as SEC contenders. Dooley had said at the SEC media days event this summer that “you’re not going to have Tennessee to kick around anymore.”
“This year I felt like we could be SEC champs by the way the offseason was rolling and (we were) being together,” Tennessee tailback Marlin Lane said.
Instead of chasing a division crown, the Vols are trying to avoid a third consecutive losing season.
“We’ve got no other options but to go try to beat Vanderbilt and still try to go get into a bowl game,” Dooley said. “That’s all we can do.”
Dooley’s decision to take a more active role in the defense this week made a difference in the first half Saturday, as Missouri’s offense didn’t cross midfield until the last three minutes of the second quarter. But he made a couple of choices late in the game that didn’t work out as well.
After Missouri tied the score 28-28 with 47 seconds left in regulation, Tennessee failed to gain yardage on its next two plays from scrimmage. The Vols then didn’t use either of their two remaining timeouts and allowed the clock to run out as the Neyland Stadium crowd voiced its displeasure.
Dooley’s gamble in the second overtime paid off when holder Tyler Drummer delivered a 5-yard touchdown run on a fake field goal. Dooley rolled the dice again in the fourth overtime when Tennessee went for the first down rather than trying a field goal on fourth-and-3 from the 18, but Missouri safety Ian Simon broke up Tyler Bray’s pass to Zach Rogers. Missouri kicked the winning field goal on its next possession.
“It wasn’t incredibly far,” Dooley said. “It was fourth-and-3 and I didn’t have a lot of confidence that we were stopping them on the other side.”
Tennessee has been competitive in every SEC game this season aside from a 44-13 loss to Alabama, but the Vols haven’t figured out how to win close games against conference foes.
The Vols lost 37-20 to Florida by allowing the Gators to score the game’s final 24 points. They turned the ball over in their final three possessions of a 51-44 loss to Georgia. They allowed a game-clinching touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter of a 41-31 loss at Mississippi State. They were in field-goal range with less than two minutes remaining when they lost a fumble in a 38-35 setback at South Carolina.
“I’m not going to say it hasn’t been hard,” Tennessee cornerback Prentiss Waggner said. “It has been real hard. We had big expectations coming into the season.”
Tennessee’s loss to Missouri may have been the most painful of all.
The Vols outscored Missouri 21-7 and outgained the Tigers 383-64 in the first half. Tennessee essentially could have put the game away by halftime, but Lane lost a fumble at the Missouri 7-yard line and Michael Palardy missed a 43-yard field goal in the first quarter.
Those wasted chances haunted Tennessee when its offense slowed down and its defense returned to its old habits in the second half.
Although the Vols gained 585 total yards — their fifth game this season with at least 500 yards — they scored a total of seven points in the third and fourth quarters. Tennessee’s defense gave up a game-tying 25-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-12 pass in the final minute of regulation. The Vols have allowed at least 37 points in each of their six conference games.
“They executed when they needed to,” Tennessee cornerback Justin Coleman said. “We just made mistakes.”
That could serve as the epitaph for this season full of missed opportunities.