Vols come up empty in 34-3 loss at Ole Miss
Handed the ball four times at the own 40 or closer in the first 20 minutes of the game, the Vols were only able to muster one field goal – a 27-yarder by kicker Aaron Medley at the 12:40 mark of the second quarter that gave Tennessee a 3-0 edge at No. 3 Ole Miss on Saturday night.
Tennessee fans were thrilled to have the lead at that point and most would’ve categorized that as a strong start.
But on a night where the Vols (3-4, 0-3 SEC) would turn the ball over four times, rush for a net of zero yards and set No. 3 Ole Miss (7-0, 4-0) up in scoring position twice with those turnovers, the Vols needed more from those early drives in what turned into a convincing 34-3 win for the Rebels.
“That always hurts,” said quarterback Justin Worley, who finished the game 19-of-34 for 191 yards. “We had a short field several times and we couldn’t do much with it. We have to do a better job of capitalizing. We knew that was going to be a game of field position. They gave it to us early and we couldn’t do anything with it.”
Ole Miss, meanwhile, had no difficulty capitalizing on their gifts from Tennessee. Cornerback Senquez Golson, who now leads the SEC with seven interceptions on the season, picked off Worley late in the second quarter and returned it the UT 35. Five plays later, four of which came on the ground, Ole Miss found the end zone to build a 14-3 lead shortly before the half.
Ole Miss tacked on a field goal in the third quarter to build a 17-3 edge, and then a fumble by true freshman Evan Berry, who was filling in for the injured Devrin Young on kickoff returns, set the Rebels up at the UT 28 late in the third. It only took one play for the Rebels to capitalize this time.
Quarterback Bo Wallace hit tight end Evan Engram – who was matched up against Tennessee defensive end Corey Vereen – the next play for a 28-yard touchdown. That gave the Rebels a commanding 24-3 lead and ended any realistic hope of a UT comeback.
“Again, turnovers were the story of the game,” coach Butch Jones said. “All week long we talked about having to earn every yard we get and that this game would be a battle of field position.”
Tennessee’s defense battled with the Rebels’ potent attack all night. The starting unit truly only gave up 13 points off of sustained Ole Miss drives with two scores coming off of the short fields and a late Ole Miss touchdown with 31 seconds left in the game coming against an assortment of reserves.
But that effort was again spoiled by poor execution from the offense. The rushing attacked netted exactly zero yards after sacks and negative runs negated any gains the Vols did make on the ground. It was the first time an SEC team failed to run for positive yardage since Florida did it against Georgia in 2011.
And the Vols’ inexperienced and banged-up offensive line got dominated yet again. There was no push in the run game and the Rebels piled up seven sacks throughout the contest.
Tennessee’s goal of a postseason appearance is still in play. The Vols still have Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt on the slate, and they need to get at least three wins to return to a bowl for the first time since 2010. Jones acknowledged that the Vols still have a reason to keep fighting despite their current four-game losing streak to FBS opponents, but also was quick to point out that their effort on this Saturday was far from up to standard.
“We still have a lot to play for,” said Jones. “I already spoke to our football team about that. I talked to [linebacker] A.J. [Johnson] and told him his leadership would be evident this week and as the season continues to progress. I think that is keeping everything in perspective. It’s been a grind. We have been through the most difficult schedule in college football. We have to keep that in perspective.
“Tonight is still unacceptable. We have to move forward and keeping grinding.”