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VOL. 39 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 20, 2015

Dangerous time to play emotionally charged Tigers

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Pinkel

Tennessee’s football team may be headed into a perfect storm Saturday night at Missouri.

It’s been an emotional whirlwind the last two weeks for the Tigers (5-5, 1-5 SEC), and they will have plenty of motivation against the Vols (6-4, 3-3).

Missouri’s football team made national headlines the Saturday night of Nov. 7 when a group of black players announced they would not participate in football until school president Tim Wolfe resigned.

Their boycott would have meant a cancellation of last Saturday’s game against BYU in Kansas City, which would have cost the school more than $1 million.

Wolfe resigned Nov. 9, long after students began voicing complaints of racism and discrimination at the school.

As the Tigers wrapped up preparation for BYU, longtime head coach Gary Pinkel announced the night before the game he would step down at the end of the season due to health concerns.

It was a stunning turn of events for the football team – especially after a week of unrest on the Missouri campus – but the inspired Tigers rallied to beat BYU (now 7-3) 20-16 at Arrowhead Stadium, home of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.

While the Tigers and Pinkel celebrated an emotional win, Tennessee was pondering a less-than-impressive 24-0 victory last Saturday over North Texas, a 40-plus-point underdog.

Pinkel, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma cancer of the blood this past May, will coach his last home game at Missouri’s Memorial Stadium against the Vols.

It’s another rallying cry for the Tigers.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones says he’s more concerned with Missouri’s strengths as a team – particularly one of SEC’s best defenses – than its advantage playing at home for the first time since the team’s threat to boycott and Wolfe’s resignation.

“The concern is we’re facing a really good football team, a very, very good defensive football team,” Jones said at his weekly press conference Monday. “I think they’re an offensive football team that has really found their identity. They were able to establish a rhythm last Saturday night versus BYU with very good football players.

“They’re a team that knows how to win, a team that expects to win. They’ve been the defending champion for two years on our side of the division (SEC East), so it’s going to be a great test for us because they’re a really good football team.”

Jones then was asked about the challenges of playing the Tigers in Pinkel’s final home game. Missouri plays at Arkansas in its regular-season finale.

“We expect it every time we go on the road in the SEC,” Jones said. “It’s no different than any of the other venues that we’ve gone into. There’s a lot on the line for both teams. We’re playing for a lot, and that comes with the maturity of a football team.

“Speaking from our end of things, it comes from the road focus. It comes with preparing for everything when you go on the road. It’s going to be a great challenge, but I know our players are looking forward to it as well.”

UT quarterback Joshua Dobbs said the team is aware of the volatile situation on the Missouri campus and with the football team, and it won’t affect the Vols during their trip.

Pinkel

“We’re pretty isolated when we go on the road,” Dobbs says. “There’s obviously things we can’t control, so we just focus on what we can control. We’re aware of the situation, but we’re also focused on what we have to do here to have a productive season. We’re just focused on what we can control going into the game.”

Tennessee is 0-3 against Missouri, two-time defending champion in the SEC East.

The Tigers beat UT 51-48 in four overtimes on Nov. 10, 2012 at Neyland Stadium.

Missouri was ranked No. 10 in 2013 when it beat the Vols 31-3 in Columbia as Dobbs made his first career start. Dobb was 26 of 42 passing for 240 yards with two interceptions, and rushed for 45 yards on seven carries.

Last year, the No. 19 Tigers beat the Vols 29-21 at Neyland Stadium. Dobbs threw for 195 yards on 24-of-37 passing, threw one touchdown and one interception, and was sacked six times.

Dobbs expects another challenge against Missouri’s defense.

“They’re stout up front and they’re strong on the back (in the secondary),” Dobbs explains. “They lead the SEC in a lot of the main defensive categories, so we have to come out with our ‘A’ game, come out ready to play, come out ready to execute in order to perform well.”

Missouri isn’t only playing for Pinkel on Saturday night.

The Tigers are playing for bowl eligibility, which the Vols gained against North Texas.

Dobbs says the Vols aren’t concerned with Tigers’ inspiration due to Pinkel coaching his last home game.

“I think anytime a team steps on the field, especially defending their home turf, they’re going to have some extra juice,” Dobbs adds.

“We’ll come ready to play. We’ve played in a hostile environment, and this will be another one. It will be a great opportunity to go out and play the game of football, I’m very excited about the opportunity.”

You can bet the Tigers are, too.

They opened the week as nine-point underdogs to the Vols despite their three-game winning streak against UT.

This is a scary game for the Vols, and a loss would leave them searching for a seventh win in the regular-season finale against Vanderbilt.

Such a finish would be far short of expectations of many UT faithful, but now seems quite possible going into the Missouri game.

Matchups to watch

Vols’ run game vs. Tigers’ front: No doubt Missouri’s strength is its defensive front seven, and it should give the Vols’ run game one of its best tests of the season.

The Tigers are third in the SEC in rushing defense (113.7 yards allowed per game); the Vols are second in the league in rushing offense (210.3 yards per game).

BYU managed just 45 rushing yards on 15 carries (3.0-yard average) against the Tigers last Saturday, while the Vols were rushing for 238 yards on 48 carries (4.9 average).

Missouri senior linebacker Kentrell Brothers leads the SEC in tackles (128, 12.8 per game) and junior linebacker Michael Scherer is 13th (75, 7.5 per game).

Brothers was chosen to the All-SEC second team last year and preseason second team this year. He’s the SEC’s leading returning tackler from 2014.

“They have really, really good linebackers,” Jones said this week. “Scherer compliments Brothers. They’re good football players, and in the back end (secondary), they’re very athletic. It’s a complete defensive football team.”

Missouri senior linebacker Kentrell Brothers, shown here in the Tigers game against Southeast Missouri in early September, leads the SEC in tackles.

-- Photograph Courtesy Of Mizzou Athletics

UT sophomore Jalen Hurd is sixth in the SEC in rushing with 887 yards (88.7 per game) with 10 touchdowns, but sophomore transfer Alvin Kamara (127 yards, 15 carries) led the rushing against North Texas with 127 yards on 15 carries and two TDs. Hurd rushed for 73 yards on 15 carries against North Texas.

Lock vs. Vols’ pass defense: Missouri freshman quarterback Drew Lock is coming off his best game of the season, which didn’t begin with him as the starting quarterback.

Lock was forced into action when junior starter Maty Mauk was suspended Nov. 1 for the remainder of the season. Mauk, who had 18 starts entering 2015, was suspended for a month early in the season, reinstated to the team, and suspended for the season a week later.

Enter Lock, rated the seventh-best QB in the nation by Rivals as a senior at Lee’s Summit (Mo.) High School.

Lock threw for 244 yards on 23-of-41 passing against BYU. He threw a 6-yard TD pass to J’Mon Moore early in the fourth quarter and didn’t throw an interception.

During the four-game losing streak to Florida, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, Lock completed 52 of 125 passes (41.6 percent) with no touchdowns and four interceptions. He averaged 127 yards passing in those four losses.

Lock was better in his debut, a 21-14 victory over South Carolina on Oct. 3. He was 21 of 28 for 136 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

“Drew continues to progress,” Jones said. “You can just see the overall command of the offense. He’s very, very comfortable. He’s much more comfortable back there, so I can just see him, he’s a very talented individual, and you can see his talents starting to come out right now.”

Dobbs vs. Missouri pass defense: Dobbs needs to bounce back from a sub-par game against an outmanned North Texas team.

Dobbs completed 15 of 23 passes for 136 yards and was off target on several passes, none more obvious than his interception late in the first half inside the red zone. It snuffed a chance for UT to take a 24-0 halftime lead, and perhaps, start freshman Quinten Dormady in the third quarter.

The Tigers are fourth in the SEC in pass defense (184 yards allowed per game), and the Vols are eighth in pass offense (210.7).

BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum completed 23 of 41 passes for 244 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions against Missouri.

“They’re a very solid defense, very well-coached defense, very disciplined defense,” Dobbs says.

“That’s how they’ve been since we’ve played them. They’re stout up front, strong and experienced in the secondary and they lead the SEC in a lot of categories. I have a lot of respect for them, and they do a very good job on the defensive side of the ball.”

Five things to watch

Missouri Pressure: Dobbs will face one of the best pass rushes in the SEC against the Tigers, who are fourth in the league in sacks (27 for minus-159 yards).

UT has given up 21 sacks this season, eighth most in the SEC.

Sophomore defensive end Charles Harris and freshman tackle Walter Brady are tied for sixth in the SEC with seven sacks each.

Harris is tied for first in tackles for loss with Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett. Each has 17 (15 solo, four assists). Brady has 10 tackles for loss, and Brothers has 8.5.

If Josh Dobbs struggles against Missouri, freshman quarterback Quinten Dormady might get a chance.

-- Andrew Bruckse/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Missouri is fourth in the nation in tackles for loss per game (8.7).

“They’re very physical and very explosive up front, great get-off on the ball, very well coached, use their hands, great disruptive and quickness,” Jones said.

“They have the size and speed, and they’re disruptive, and they flow to the football, run to the football, and they pursue to the football.”

Turnover Margin: Tennessee is tied for ninth in the SEC in turnover margin (plus-zero) and is in a slump as far as creating turnovers.

The Vols have gained 12 turnovers (seven fumbles, five interceptions) this year while committing 12 turnovers (six fumbles, six interceptions).

After starting the season by causing six turnovers in the first three games, Tennessee has managed six in the past seven games.

Tennessee’s last takeaway was a big one: Malik Foreman’s forced fumble at the end of the Vols’ win over South Carolina on Nov. 7.

“We have to generate turnovers,” Jones said. “These games are going to come down to field position, taking care of the football, great play on special teams, and not beating ourselves, and part of that is generating some momentum plays and generating some turnovers.

“We always talk about being turnover conscious. We saw what happened a couple of weeks ago with Malik Foreman, and we need to continue to generate ball disruption but also tipped footballs.”

Missouri is tied for seventh in turnover margin (plus-one). The Tigers have gained 15 turnovers (seven fumbles, eight interceptions) and have committed 14 (four fumbles, 10 interceptions).

Hansbrough’s health: Missouri’s offensive woes haven’t been solely due to quarterback issues this year. The Tigers are last in the SEC in scoring offense (15.2 points), last in total offense (297.7 yards per game), last in rushing offense (120.9), and next-to-last in passing offense (176.8).

Senior tailback Russell Hansbrough has been severely limited this season due to an ankle injury, but he’s rounding into shape for the stretch run.

In the BYU game, Hansbrough rushed for 117 yards on 26 carries. It’s his first 100-yard game of the season. He had eight carries for 12 yards in the loss to Vanderbilt, a season low in the 10-3 loss. Hansbrough has rushed for 410 yards on 94 carries this year.

“We all know Hansbrough brings a lot to the table,” Jones said. “He can get you the tough yards. He can make an individual miss, and he can take it the distance, and they do a great job of the way they use their running backs in their offense and then their run adjustments and their attachment plays that they use off the run game, very similar to what North Texas did as well.”

Bowl reps: Nobody needs to tell Jones or the Vols how much they can enhance their bowl trip by winning the last two games, and there will be plenty of bowl representatives watching.

Last year, the Vols didn’t become bowl eligible until they beat Vanderbilt 24-17 in the last game of the regular season.

UT finished with a 7-6 record after beating Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl, and Jones began setting goals not long after the Iowa game.

“We really started that process last year in terms of our players understanding the more you win, the more that’s at stake,” Jones said.

“There’s a lot to play for. We can do some things that haven’t been done here in quite some time.

“You look at being bowl eligible for the first time since 2007 at this stage of the game. Those are all things in the building blocks of a football program. It’s evidence of how far we’ve come as a football program.”

Jashon’s return? Jones said offensive guard Jashon Robertson will have his best chance of playing in a couple of weeks for the Missouri game.

Robertson missed three of the last four games – including the last two against South Carolina and North Texas – due to an ankle injury.

Starting tackle Brett Kendrick has been out since the Oct. 3 loss to Arkansas. Reports have Kendrick out for the rest of the season with a knee injury.

Freshman Chance Hall has replaced Kendrick, while senior Mack Crowder has replaced Robertson.

“Our offensive line has done a tremendous, tremendous job,” Jones said. “We’ve asked so much of them and had a lot of individuals step up in critical moments and play different positions, and they’ve done a very good job of that.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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