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VOL. 41 | NO. 45 | Friday, November 10, 2017

Vols upset at Missouri is vital to bowl hopes

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With his ankle bending at an uncomfortable angle during the win over Southern Miss, quarterback Jarrett Guarantano might miss the Missouri game, although Coach Butch Jones reports that the injury is “much, much better.”

-- Jerry Denham | The Ledger

Tennessee’s football program remains in limbo as the Vols pursue bowl eligibility under fifth-year coach Butch Jones.

Jones is hanging onto his job as the Vols (4-5, 0-5 SEC) play their final three games of the season, starting with Saturday night’s 7:30 ET game (SEC Network) against Missouri (4-5, 1-4 SEC) in Columbia.

UT opened as a 10.5-point underdog for the Missouri game and likely will play the same underdog role Nov. 18 against LSU at Neyland Stadium.

If the Vols split those two games, they’ll still need to beat Vanderbilt (4-5, 0-5 SEC) in the Nov. 25 season finale at Neyland Stadium to be bowl eligible.

It’s a tall order for this UT team and Jones, starting with Missouri riding a three-game winning streak.

“A team that’s playing with a lot of momentum, a lot of passion, a lot of energy, three straight wins,” Jones says. “When you look at their offense, it’s explosive and dynamic.”

With a five-game SEC losing streak after losses to Alabama and Kentucky, Jones managed to stay on as coach for last Saturday’s 24-10 non-conference win over Southern Miss at home.

It seems only a matter of time before first-year Tennessee athletics director John Currie will announce a coaching change.

Much of UT’s fan base is seething because Florida fired its coach, Jim McElwain, on Oct. 29, giving the Gators a leg up on a coaching search. However, McElwain’s situation was far different than Jones’.

McElwain’s problems at Florida went beyond poor showings on the field. He started the season with a credit card scandal involving nine players who were suspended by the university. Then, McElwain made unsubstantiated claims Gators’ fans made death threats to Florida’s coaches.

Currie and UT have no such problems with Jones. It’s the team’s decline after back-to-back nine-win seasons that has him on the cusp of being fired.

Currie surely has reasons for not pulling the plug. Maybe he sees no benefit in firing Jones with games left to be played, like when former AD Mike Hamilton fired Phillip Fulmer with three games left in the 2008 season.

How did the Vols respond? With a 13-7 loss homecoming to Wyoming at Neyland Stadium. Fulmer, now an assistant to the UT president, might be in Currie’s ear.

Or perhaps Currie is waiting for one more loss. Missouri could be it.

The Tigers beat Florida 45-16 last Saturday in Columbia, and the Gators weren’t competitive after McElwain’s firing, albeit against a surging Missouri team.

Missouri opened the season with a 72-43 win over Missouri State and lost their next five games, including SEC losses to South Carolina (31-13), No. 10 Auburn (51-14), at Kentucky (40-34) and at No. 2 Georgia (53-28).

Missouri is averaging 55 points in its last three games, wins against Idaho, UConn and Florida.

It all starts with junior quarterback Drew Lock.

“He’s played since he was a true freshman, so he plays with great confidence,” Jones noted. “He has moxey. He has swagger. He’s going to play for a long time on Sundays (in the NFL).”

Matchups to watch

Lock vs. Vols’ secondary

Missouri leads the SEC and is 14th nationally in passing offense (314.9 yards per game), while UT leads the SEC and is fourth nationally in passing yards allowed per game (150).

Lock threw three TD passes against Florida and has 21 TD passes in the past five games – the most prolific five-game TD passing stretch in program history.

Lock, who was 15-of-20 for 228 yards with one interception against the Gators, is in his third year as the starting quarterback. He leads the SEC in passing yards this year (2,795), completing 60.7 percent of his passes. He leads the nation with 31 touchdown passes.

“I think he’s playing at a very high level,” Jones said of Lock. “They’re doing a good job of involving him in the run game. He has a quick release, can make all the throws and then again schematically, they do a good job of getting the ball out of his hands quickly.”

Last year, Lock led the SEC in passing yards (3,399) and was second in passing yards per game (283.3) and yards per completion (14.34.). In Missouri’s 63-37 loss at UT last year, Lock threw for 320 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions.

Mizzou backs vs. Vols’ front 7

Missouri’s rushing attack is led by 5-foot-10, 200-pound Ish Witter and 5-10, 205-pound true freshman Larry Rountree. Both rushed for 83 yards last Saturday against Florida; Rountree had three rushing touchdowns.

Witter leads the Tigers in rushing this year with 504 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 5.5 yards per carry.

Rountree has 369 rushing yards and four TD runs, averaging 5.8 yards per carry.

Jones explained Missouri’s run-pass option with Lock presents another problem.

“They do a really good job with the RPOs of really matching up the run game with an RPO or two,” Jones said. “They have very, very good running backs. There was a number of situations in their game last week when they were able to make the first- or second-level defender miss and get the ball vertically, so they’re very explosive. And then I think you add a whole other dynamic when you involve the quarterback in the run game.”

Sophomore Damarea Crockett was Missouri’s No. 2 back behind Witter starting the season, but he has been out with a shoulder injury sustained in the 53-28 loss to Georgia. He rushed for 481 yards and two touchdowns with a 6.0-yard average before the injury.

In last year’s game against UT, Crockett rushed for 225 yards and a touchdown and Witter 163 yards and two TDs as the Tigers rolled up 420 rushing yards.

Tennessee held Southern Miss to season-lows in rushing yards (118) and passing yards (161) last Saturday.

Missouri is seventh in the SEC and 59th nationally in rushing offense (169.2 yards per game), and Tennessee is 13th in the SEC and 122nd nationally in rushing defense (237.3).

UT QBs vs Mizzou ‘D’

Redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano started his fourth game at quarterback for the Vols last Saturday and was 9-of-13 for 102 yards before leaving with an ankle injury in the second quarter.

True freshman Will McBride of League City, Texas, entered in place of Guarantano for his first playing time as a Vol – burning a potential redshirt season – and completed 1 of 8 passes for 13 yards, but had a couple of passes dropped. McBride played the entire second half.

Jones said Monday that Guarantano’s ankle was “much, much better” and he’s probable for the Missouri game.

There were critics saying Jones shouldn’t have burned McBride’s redshirt this late in the season, but UT’s coach pointed out McBride and his family were fine with it.

“Here’s Will McBride, and his family is at home and they’re celebrating his brother’s birthday,” Jones says. “And all of a sudden it turned into a Will McBride watch party. Their family was ecstatic and excited to be able to turn the birthday party into watching their son and their brother play, so that was pretty neat.”

UT junior quarterback Quinten Dormady is out for season with a shoulder injury that required surgery, leaving the Vols with just two scholarship QBs (Guarantano and McBride).

Tennessee’s No. 3 quarterback for the Missouri game is true freshman walk-on Seth Washington, who played at Episcopal School of Dallas, Texas.

Noteworthy

Big recruiting loss

Jones and UT fans were dealt another blow Tuesday when five-star offensive lineman Cade Mays of Knoxville Catholic High de-committed from the Vols via his Twitter account.

Mays, a senior, removed mention of Tennessee on his Twitter profile after the Vols’ lost to Georgia 41-0 on Oct. 30. He is UT’s fourth de-commitment from the 2018 class since October, joining running back Lyn-J Dixon, receiver Jatavious Harris, and safety Brendon Harris.

Mays was Tennessee’s only five-star recruit and considered the pillar of the 2018 class. His father, Kevin, played for the Vols in the 1990s, and Cade grew up a Vols fan.

The 6-foot-6, 318-pound tackle visited Clemson and Georgia during the past two weeks and said his goal was to win a national championship in his college career.
With UT teetering on even getting a bowl bid and considering Jones’ status, Mays’ decision comes as no surprise. Nor would be more de-commitments.

UT injury/suspension update

Jones announced Monday senior kick returner/defensive back Evan Berry will miss the rest of the season due to an undisclosed injury sustained against Southern Miss.

Berry, an All-American kick returner in 2015, missed the final four games of last season after tearing his ACL and returned from a long absence for this year’s game against Kentucky.

“I give him a lot of credit for working his way back and getting himself ready to go,” Jones said. “But unfortunately, he had an injury and right now, as we look at it, it’s season-ending.”

Berry finishes as UT’s career leader in kickoff return average (34.3), far ahead of previous record holder Mallon Faircloth (28.2 yards per return from 1961-63).”

Berry, who ran the opening kickoff against Southern Miss for 46 yards, has four kick-off returns for touchdown, tying the record held by Willie Gault (1979-82).

UT offensive tackles Brett Kendrick (concussion) and Drew Richmond (undisclosed injury) were out for the Southern Miss game. Tennessee started the season with 14 scholarship offensive linemen and was down to six for last Saturday’s game.

Redshirt freshmen Devante Brooks and Ryan Johnson got their first starts on the offensive line against Southern Miss, as did true freshman Riley Locklear.

Jones said Kendrick and Richmond are questionable for Missouri.

Sophomore receiver Marquez Callaway also is questionable after leaving the Southern Miss game due to injury, and redshirt freshman receiver Latrell Williams will miss the rest of the season after getting hurt Saturday.

Jones said junior defensive end Jonathan Kongbo will return from a one-game team suspension but must earn back his starting job back for the Missouri game.

J’Mon’s TDs

Missouri senior wide receiver J’Mon Moore had five catches for 64 yards and a touchdown against Florida. He’s fourth on the school’s career TD list with 19 and ninth in receiving yards with 2,135.

Moore leads the Tigers in catches (44), receiving yards (740) and TD catches (nine) this season and averages 16.8 yards per catch.

He’s caught a pass in 25 consecutive games dating back to 2015.

He’s not the only long-ball threat.

Johnathon Johnson has 34 catches for 563 yards and four TD catches, averaging 16.6 yards per catch. Emanuel Hall has 26 catches for 604 yards four TDs, averaging 23.2 yards per catch.

Missouri ranked sixth among FBS programs and tops in the SEC in average yards per catch (15.7) going into the Florida game.

Watch the tight ends

Redshirt freshman tight end Albert Okwuegbunam has 15 catches for 193 yards, and his seven touchdown catches was atop the FBS rankings for tight ends going into the Florida game.

Senior tight end Jason Reese has five catches – three for TDs – for 134 yards, an average of 26.8 yards per catch.

Junior tight end Kendall Blanton has five catches for 115 yards and a touchdown with a 12.8-yard average.

TFL attack

Missouri had eight tackles for loss against Florida, marking its third consecutive game and fifth game of the season with at least eight TFLs.

Junior defensive tackle Terry Beckner had two tackles for loss and a sack against the Gators. Beckner was a freshman All-American in 2015.

Terez Hall leads the Tigers in TFLs with 11, while Beckner is second with 8.5 TFLs and a team-high six sacks. Marcel Frazier has 6.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks.

“Beckner is as good as anyone we’ve seen inside, and then Hall leads the SEC in tackles for loss,” Jones added. “They’re very disruptive and can play man coverage on the perimeter. They’re winning a lot of one-on-one matchups up front, and as we all know, it starts at the line of scrimmage, but their linebackers are very, very active.”

Series history

Missouri joined the SEC in 2012 and won its first three games against Tennessee – including in 2013 and 14 when the Tigers won SEC East Division titles.

The Vols have won the last two games against the Tigers, the first by a 19-8 score in Columbia.

In the first-ever meeting in 2012, Missouri beat UT 51-48 in four overtimes, tying for the third longest game in Tennessee history.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.