KNOXVILLE — Here’s a full report card from the Vols’ performance in a 51-44 loss at Georgia on Saturday:
Tennessee can’t seem to win a big game with Tyler Bray at quarterback, but it wouldn’t be any better off without him right now. It was another afternoon of highs and lows for the junior. There were some perfectly thrown, NFL-style passes, and there were inexcusable misses as well. Bray finished the game completing 24-of-45 passes for 281 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. His first two interceptions were costly, but it was ultimately his fumble late in the fourth quarter that ended Tennessee’s chances.
Running backs: B+
Quietly, Rajion Neal is becoming a productive, SEC-level running back. He’s never going to be one of the elite runners in the conference, but he had another solid day Saturday with 23 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown. He was also the team’s second-leading receiver with five catches for 53 yards and a touchdown. Backups Marlin Lane and Devrin Young combined for 11 carries and 36 yards. A.J. Johnson now has three touchdowns on eight attempts from the Wildcat on the season.
Wide receivers/tight ends: C
Tight end Mychal Rivera deserves better. He had three big catches for 82 yards. But Bray simply needed more help from his receivers. Perhaps Bray’s best pass of the day went right off of Cordarrelle Patterson’s hands on what was a certain touchdown. Patterson did later redeem himself with a 46-yard touchdown run. Justin Hunter was open a few times, but he and Bray could never connect for a long completion. Credit Zach Rogers with some good routes on his way to six catches for 51 yards.
Offensive line: A
Looking for a group that is improving? After a couple seasons of frustration, this unit is finally getting it together. It is getting some push in the run game and it protects the quarterback as well as any unit in the nation. Rushing for 193 yards against that Georgia defense is no small task. It was a complete 180 from the negative rushing yardage that Vols posted against Georgia in 2011.
Defensive line: C
Tennessee’s secondary deserves a lot of the blame for the long Georgia runs, but the defensive line let the Georgia backs through the line of scrimmage untouched a few times. The bad outweighed the good, but there still were some notable plays from this unit. Defensive end Corey Miller deflected a pass that was ultimately intercepted and ran back for a touchdown by Byron Moore. Daniel McCullers had eight tackles, and Darrington Sentimore had four tackles, a tackle for loss and a fumble recovery.
Herman Lathers had one of the biggest plays of the game when he sacked Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and stripped him late in the second quarter. That set up a Tennessee touchdown and swung the momentum completely to the Vols’ favor before the half. Curt Maggitt forced a fumble as well, but he is clearly still hobbled by his lingering turf toe injury. A.J. Johnson had 11 stops, but he, like the rest of the unit, must shoulder some of the blame for the inability to stop Georgia’s running backs from making long runs.
This unit isn’t getting the job done. Murray completed 19 of 25 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns. More concerning is the fact that two Georgia freshman running backs looked far superior in size, strength and speed to anybody in the secondary. Fifteen-yard runs are going to happen sometimes in college football, but Tennessee’s secondary is letting those moderate gains turn into huge runs. Moore’s interception and run for a touchdown was a good play, but that probably doesn’t happen without Miller’s deflection.
Special teams: D
Speaking of not getting the job done, the kicking game continues to be an embarrassment. Kicker Derrick Brodus missed another extra point and a short field goal. Coach Derek Dooley went back to junior Michael Palardy, the former starter, for the last extra point of the game. Punter Matt Darr averaged only 31.2 yards per punt, and the Bulldogs blocked one. The return game was underwhelming, but punt and kickoff coverage was solid.
One of the knocks on Tennessee over the last two years is that it’s not a mentally tough team. When things have gone against the Vols, they generally haven’t responded well recently. That wasn’t the case on Saturday. They overcame a 17-point deficit in the first half and had a chance to tie it late after being down 14 in the fourth quarter. That’s a positive step. Still, there are major issues to address. The defense is getting regularly ripped, the passing game can’t keep missing big opportunities and special teams are at an FCS level. There are no moral victories, but if Tennessee can improve some of those areas and build on its gritty performance from Saturday, it might be able to pull a win or two out in its next three games against Mississippi State, Alabama and South Carolina.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.