Tennessee head coach Butch Jones screams at his players from the sidelines as the final seconds tick off in the second half against South Alabama in an NCAA college football game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Saturday. (AP Photo)
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee coach Butch Jones continually talks about how his young football team has little to no margin for error.
That makes it all the more discouraging for the Volunteers when they make the kinds of mistakes that nearly cost them a game Saturday.
After playing virtually error-free football in its first two games of the season, Tennessee has become sloppier the last couple of weeks. Turnovers and penalties caused the Vols to squander most of a 24-point lead Saturday before handing on for a 31-24 victory over South Alabama. That escape followed a six-turnover performance in a 31-17 loss to No. 18 Florida.
The Vols (3-2) can’t afford similar breakdowns as they play the toughest portion of their schedule. In its next three games, Tennessee hosts No. 6 Georgia and No. 13 South Carolina and travels to top-ranked Alabama.
“As we continue to move forward, obviously we can’t make mistakes,” Jones said. “I wanted a clean game and it was far from that.”
Jones emphasized the positive after the South Alabama game.
South Alabama had first-and-goal from the 7 in the closing minutes before Tennessee made a game-saving stop that ended with Brian Randolph’s interception in the end zone on fourth down. Jones saw it as a sign his team was learning how to respond in tough situations.
“I’ve been doing this 20-plus years and every win is a good win,” Jones said. “It’s extremely hard to win in college football. We needed to get to victory No. 3. We got to victory No. 3. It’s a difficult process, but we got there.”
The process shouldn’t have been that difficult.
Tennessee owned a 31-7 advantage early in the third quarter and would have led by more if Justin Worley hadn’t thrown two interceptions into the end zone late in the first half. Worley was picked off again in the third quarter and now has five interceptions in his last two games.
Worley said the Vols “just missed out on some opportunities. We were trying to give them the game — and they made it a game.”
The turnovers weren’t Tennessee’s only mistakes.
Tennessee had committed a total of nine penalties in its first four games. Boston College was the only Football Bowl Subdivision team averaging fewer penalties per game before Saturday.
The Vols weren’t nearly as disciplined against South Alabama. Tennessee had eight penalties, including a false start on offensive guard Alex Bullard that nullified what would have been a successful fake field goal attempt with Tennessee leading 31-17 in the fourth quarter.
On Michael Palardy’s ensuing 52-yard field-goal try, the ball appeared to hit holder Tyler Drummer’s left hand after it left the ground. Palardy’s kick fell at least 30 yards short of the goalposts, and South Alabama’s Roman Buchanan returned it to the Tennessee 29 to set up the Jaguars’ final touchdown.
“We’re turning the football over and making penalties, which you can’t do,” Jones said. “We’re going to get it corrected.”
Jones considered the close victory a teaching opportunity that showed his team could deal with adversity, though the Vols clearly still must learn how to handle prosperity after turning a potential blowout into a nail-biter.
“We had anything and everything that could go wrong,” Jones said. “We turned the football over. We have a fake field goal, penalties, not getting off the field on third down, and yet we found a way at the end of the game to win a game.”
But if the Vols repeat these mistakes in their next three games, it’s hard to imagine Tennessee finding a way to win any of them.
comments powered by Disqus