KNOXVILLE – The Vols fell 59-14 against a dominating Oregon squad on Saturday. Somehow, the margin of defeat doesn’t even tell the whole story. It could’ve been worse for the Vols if the Ducks kept pushing the entire game. The offense failed to produce many explosive plays. The defense had one of its worst days in school history.
Here are some position-by-position grades:
Outside of a 51-yard pass from Justin Worley to Josh Smith – who was wide open – the passing game did essentially nothing. Worley capped off the drive with a 4-yard touchdown toss to Jason Croom. But after that early score, Worley completed just nine of his next 18 attempts for 59 yards. He regularly missed open targets and even his completions were off target just enough that often receivers had to dive or stretch, thus preventing run-after-catch opportunities. There might be some calls for a QB switch this week. The reality is that Worley hasn’t had enough time and isn’t getting enough help on offense to justify that at this point in the season.
Running backs: C-
Though some of it came in garbage time, this unit did churn out 178 yards and a touchdown against a very good Oregon front. There were no spectacular runs, but Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal seemed to be the only Vols who could make Oregon miss a tackle, even though that didn’t happen too many times. Tennessee needed a dominant effort on the ground if it was going to hang anywhere close to Oregon. It got a mediocre one, at best.
Wide receivers/tight ends: D-
The plays by Smith and Croom save this group from a complete failing grade. In fairness, both the wide receivers and tight ends were incredibly banged up. The Vols were down to their fourth-string slot receiver after injuries to Pig Howard, Devrin Young and Johnathon Johnson. In total, the receivers accounted for seven catches for 81 yards. Tight end Brendan Downs added two grabs for 18 yards. They simply couldn’t get open on a consistent basis and when they did, Worley would miss them or they would drop it.
Offensive line: C
Like the running backs, the O-line needed to physically dominate this game. It didn’t. The veteran group created holes from time to time in the run game, but there wasn’t the overall level of physicality that UT needs to run the ball against elite teams. Worley was pressured multiple times, but ultimately was never sacked. It was an average performance from a group that needs to dominate.
Defensive line: D
The return of defensive end Jacques Smith did little to bolster the D-line. Ends Corey Miller and Marlon Walls both recorded a sack, but the front four was merely a small speed bump for Oregon’s nearly-perfect offense. There wasn’t enough consistent pressure on Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, and despite Oregon’s record-breaking day of passing, the Ducks still managed to run for 216 yards. Losing Trevarris Saulsberry to injury during the game is another potential huge hit to a group that already lacked depth.
Already missing Curt Maggitt, starter Dontavis Sapp also had to leave the game and the Vols got limited contribution from Brent Brewer. That left A.J. Johnson – who excels in run stopping, but can be shaky in pass coverage – and some seldom-used backups to chase Oregon’s speedy backs and receivers all over the field. The results were ugly. The Ducks piled up big play after big play to total 687 yards of total offense – the second worst defensive performance in UT’s history.
It was a throwback to last year. That’s not a good thing. Opposing ball carriers ran around, through and by UT’s secondary. Sometimes receivers weren’t even covered at all. This group struggled to get lined up against Oregon’s fast-paced offense. At one point, cornerback Justin Coleman was the only person out to defend three Oregon receivers bunched up together. Mariota (456 passing yards) had the third-best passing day against the Vols in school history. He would’ve easily set the record if he hadn’t been taken out in the third quarter. The Vols failed this very difficult test on Saturday.
Special teams: C-
Oregon seemed to be on the brink of busting an enormous return all game, but, outside of a 40-yard punt return by Bralon Addison, the Vols were able to keep Oregon’s dangerous return game somewhat in check. Michael Palardy had a decent day punting, averaging 43.6 yards per attempt on nine tries – including two that were downed inside the 20. The return game was solid, though not spectacular. Jacob Carter and Vincent Dallas continue to do a good job fielding the ball in the absence of Devrin Young, but neither seems like a likely candidate for a huge play in the return game.
Losses are always pinned on the coaching. And the Vols certainly were outcoached on Saturday. But, to some extent, there’s only so much a coach can do about talent and depth in his first year. The Ducks were simply better, faster, deeper and more experienced than the Vols by a wide margin. Being forced to play the No. 2 team in the nation on the road this early in the season was a tough hand dealt to coach Butch Jones and his staff. Only time and recruiting can truly fix some of these issues for UT. Jones would’ve liked a more competitive game, though. He took responsibility after the game and vowed to get it fixed. It doesn’t get a lot easier. The Vols face Florida, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina in four of their next five games. The tests will keep on coming.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga