KNOXVILLE – For most of his short tenure at Tennessee, coach Butch Jones has been a by-the-book, play-the-percentage type of coach.
He’s preached field position, limiting mistakes and not beating yourself. And while those principles still guided his decision making, there’s no denying that Jones showed a gutsy streak in Tennessee’s near-upset overtime loss to No. 6 Georgia on Saturday night.
Look no further than three fourth-down conversions in the fourth quarter. One came on the drive that tied the game at 24. Two more were converted on the drive that temporarily gave UT a 31-24 lead.
. The first conversion was a fake fullback dive and pitch out to running back Rajion Neal, who found the edge and gained 43 yards.
. The second was a 1-yard dive by Neal on a fourth-and-1 from UT’s own 29.
. The Vols used play action on the third, with quarterback Justin Worley faking to Neal and then finding freshman tight end A.J. Branisel wide open for a 28-yard gain.
Did Jones’ streak of somewhat risky calls indicate a growing confidence in his team?
“Absolutely,” Jones said. “They look to the coaches first and foremost and we believe in them. We believe in our football team. Kids executed them. They did a great job.”
But it was more than just a blind faith that led him to make the calls. In his eyes, he was playing the percentages, even if it went against conventional football wisdom at times. He was leaning on the strength of his team – the offensive line.
He also saw the plays work in practice, giving him extra confidence to call them in crucial situations.
“We have the best offensive line in the SEC,” said Jones. “That’s what we believe, so we’re going to do it. These are plays that the coaching staff did a great job and the players executed it. When you execute in practice, you have confidence to call it in the game. We executed them in practice and there was never any doubt that we were going to do that.”
And for an offense that has been at times ineffective and much maligned so far this year, that boost of confidence could pay dividends going forward. Going into halftime against Georgia trailing 17-3, the Vols were clearly in the midst of an offensive slump. Dating back to the prior game against South Alabama, it had scored just 10 points in the past four quarters.
“It definitely gave us some momentum through the second half,” said quarterback Justin Worley. “You have to respect Coach Jones for making those decisions. We are out there playing the game and playing to win. He can’t really do much from the sidelines except put us in situations where we can win when they are presented to him. We respect him for throwing the cards on the table and taking those chances.”
. Georgia quarterback Aaron Muray became the SEC’s all-time leader in passing yardage on Saturday, passing former Bulldogs quarterback David Greene.
. It was an up-and-down game for true freshman defensive end Corey Vereen, who recorded his first career sack, but also was flagged for a personal foul that aided Georgia on its last-minute drive that tied the game at 31 in regulation.
. Freshman receiver Marquez North hauled in his first touchdown reception of his career, a toe-dragging grab that was reviewed, but upheld by the officials.
. Kicker/punter Michael Palardy continues to have a career year. The senior averaged 51.2 yards per punt, had five touchbacks off his kickoffs, hit a 26-yard field goal and all four of his extra points.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga