COLUMBIA, Mo. – The Vols fell 31-3 in their first-ever trip to Missouri. The Tigers jumped out to a 24-3 lead in the first half and tacked on a touchdown in the second half to account for the final margin in the starting debut of freshman quarterback Joshua Dobbs.
Here are some position-by-position grades:
As is the case with most true freshmen, Dobbs needs to do a better job taking care of the ball. He threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. But even with those three turnovers, considering the opponent, the environment and the lack of help he got, Dobbs did a lot of good things. He completed 26 of 42 passes for 240 yards and added 45 yards on the ground. He didn’t play well enough for UT to win, but he showed many of the tools that make him UT’s potential quarterback of the future. It was certainly a performance he can build on, but also one he'll need to improve on.
Running backs: C-
Their total production (49 yards) is worthy of a lower grade. However, the backs didn’t get much of a chance. Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal combined for just 45 yards on 14 carries. Lane was the more productive of the two, taking six carries for 37 yards. Neal had just 8 yards on eight carries. Playing from behind was a big reason the Vols didn’t focus on the run as much as normal, but Tennessee must get back to emphasizing the run game if it is to reach bowl eligibility.
Wide receivers/tight ends: C
Marquez North (seven catches, 68 yards) and Pig Howard (11 catches, 89 yards) continue to be big parts of the offense. They are pieces this young passing attack can build around. Finding more help is the next step. Freshman Josh Smith had what looked to be a touchdown reception bounce right off his hands. Johnathon Johnson and Jason Croom both added a few catches, but the Vols need more help and more consistency from the pass catchers on the roster.
Offensive line: D-
The senior-laden unit, which has been up and down this year, might’ve hit a new low on Saturday. Dobbs was regularly under pressure and was sacked twice. Ther wasn't much room in the run game either. Coach Butch Jones was particularly upset with the play at the line of scrimmage and the Vols might think about scheme or personnel changes up front if this group doesn’t bounce back.
Defensive line: D
What happened to this group? After harassing opposing quarterbacks regularly when the Vols were playing better in October, the Vols haven’t recorded a sack in the last two games. It hasn’t just been the lack of a pass rush hurting this unit, though. It can’t stop the run. Missouri piled up an impressive total of 339 yards on the ground, with over 100 coming from Mizzou quarterback Maty Mauk. The Vols need to fix their leaky defensive front soon with Auburn, a team that averages over 300 yards per game on the ground, coming to Knoxville next week.
A.J. Johnson had his typical active day, leading the team with 11 stops. This group, however, is struggling to make big-impact plays. As a unit, it only had half of a tackle for loss. There were no sacks, interceptions or fumbles forced or recovered. In short, this group is primarily making plays down the field and isn’t disrupting opposing offenses on their side of the ball.
Blown coverages, missed tackles and miscommunication – this group hit that poor trifecta against Missouri. Most understand that this isn’t the most talented and athletic secondary in the SEC, but there was no excuse to explain why Missouri receivers were running wide open at times without a DB anywhere within sight. The Vols can’t do much to change the personnel here. They’ll have to improve communication and tackling this week.
Special teams: B+
Michael Palardy was solid again. He hit the second longest field goal of his career, a 51-yarder, and averaged 42.7 yards per punt with four downed inside the 20. Coverage was better than last week, especially on kickoffs. The punt coverage team also had multiple heads-up plays to get the ball downed deep in Missouri territory. Devrin Young dropped one punt but managed to pick it up and get a nice return. It seems like he’s getting closer and closer to breaking a huge one in the return game.
It’s understandable that Tennessee didn’t win. Missouri is a top-10 team with more talent than the Vols at this point. But it might’ve been UT’s most disappointing effort of the year. They didn’t look ready to play and there were too many mistakes on both sides of the ball. The competition has been fierce on the road this year, but the Vols have been completely overwhelmed away from Neyland Stadium, especially early in games. Tennessee is 0-4 in away games and has been outscored 114-17 in the first half of those contests. There’s one more week in the top-10 gauntlet with No. 7 Auburn coming to Knoxville this week. This team still has a lot to play for – a potential winning season, a bowl birth and overall progress as a program. It’ll need to improve a lot in the next couple of weeks to reach some of those goals.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga
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