published Saturday, November 3rd, 2012

Vols desperate for win as Troy visits

Tennesse tight end Mychal Rivera catches a pass in front of South Carolina's DeVonte Holloman at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C.
Tennesse tight end Mychal Rivera catches a pass in front of South Carolina's DeVonte Holloman at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Troy (4-4, 3-3 Sun Belt) at Tennessee (3-5, 0-5 SEC)

Noon * Neyland Stadium in Knoxville * Fox Sports Net/106.5 FM

The matchup

Tennessee should be able to win its four remaining games, but its porous defense gives significant pause to that notion. Can the Volunteers stop anybody? The toughest test actually might come today against a Troy team that's much higher nationally in total offense (26th) than the remaining SEC trio of Missouri (109th), Vanderbilt (85th) and Kentucky (117th).

The Trojans' up-tempo spread offense averages 28 points per game, has scored 24 points or more in all but one game and ran up 572 yards on Mississippi State's defense in a 30-24 September loss.

"If we think we're going to roll the ball out there and get a 'W' we're really fooling ourselves," Vols coach Derek Dooley said. "They're up-tempo, and they spread you out and those shoot those passes out quick. They just kind of nickel you down the field and prey on a mistake you make and a missed tackle and that sort of stuff.

"Any time you play an offense that can generate yards and points, you've got to hold on."

Especially if you're Tennessee's 2012 defense.

One to watch

The big-picture says it's who does and doesn't show up in the stands. According to one report this week, Tennessee expects to sell 85,000 tickets for today's game. On what's supposed to be a picturesque homecoming afternoon, how many fans show up?

On the field, it's receiver Justin Hunter, who responded to some public criticism from his coach with 90 yards and eight catches against South Carolina. Yet the talented junior hasn't found the end zone since the Akron game and is scoreless in SEC play. A player with two career touchdowns of 80 or more yards has a long reception of 44 yards this season, and his per-catch average is 14 yards, down from 26 in 2010 and 18.5 in an injury-shortened 2011 season.

"Of all the things that hurt him that year was losing that year of strength development," Dooley said. "He was [a] track guy, never really committed to the weight room, and then started to commit after his freshman season and made a lot of gains before he hurt his knee. It really set him back from a strength standpoint.

"I think it shows up out there on when guys get their hands on him or some of those opportunity balls. He's going to get better at that. Justin's playing really well, but he's got a lot improvement that he's going to make as a player."

In the end

If Tyler Bray maintains his level of play from a week ago, it should be rather easy for the Tennessee quarterback to lead the Vols to plenty of points and yards. Troy is 100th nationally in pass efficiency defense and 62nd in total defense. The Trojans have just 10 sacks this season and face an offensive line that's allowed just four against the meat of the SEC.

But can Tennessee's defense stop Troy? It's a legitimate question, especially after Akron used a similar approach to hang with the Vols for three quarters in September. The Trojans should be able to put up points, but it's not likely to be enough if the Vols' offense shows up ready to play.

"Usually the answer is back to simplicity and fundamentals when you get like that," Dooley said. "It's not some play that's going to solve anything. It's going out there and mastering a couple of coverages, getting off blocks, matching the patterns and playing good aggressive football."

Prediction

Tennessee 48, Troy 28

KNOXVILLE -- It's been 42 days since Tennessee won a football game.

The Volunteers would be satisfied with any win at this point, regardless of who's on the other sideline or their conference affiliation.

Riding a four-game losing streak and carrying the burden of an 0-5 Southeastern Conference record, Tennessee hosts Troy at Neyland Stadium this afternoon looking to kickstart a successful November run.

"We've lost a bunch of games in a row," quarterback Tyler Bray said. "We're tired of losing, and we want to get a victory. We've been practicing this way the last three weeks.

"We want to finish on a positive note. We always want to go to a bowl [because] you get to play an extra game against a team we haven't seen yet. It's just another game we get to go out there and battle."

The past two Octobers have left the Vols feeling the same way entering November, and third-year coach Derek Dooley moved quickly after his team lost to South Carolina last week to dubbing the season's remaining four games a "second season" of sorts.

The label may not fly with a disgruntled fan base more interested in discussing a potential coaching change, but the players seem on board based on their comments after practices this week.

"It's a saying that goes around: Everybody remembers what you do in November," linebacker Herman Lathers said. "We just want to win these games in November. We're approaching it as a new season."

"We're trying to be remembered for November," added fellow linebacker Curt Maggitt.

The players believe there's plenty at stake this month, including qualifying for a bowl game, the chance to increase the win total from a season ago and creating momentum moving forward. The Vols came close in some of those SEC losses, but salvaging a season is the team's goal at this point. It's something Tennessee didn't do last season.

"The legacy of this team and the character of this team is going to be defined by how we compete these last four games," Dooley said, "but it's important to know it's not four games, because we can't go 4-0 without going 1-0. I told the players, 'I don't want to even talk about 4-0.' We've got to go 1-0.

"We've got to get a win, and we hadn't done that in a while."

There is some truth to Dooley's legacy-defining claim. Two of the lowest points in a forgettable 2011 season came in November. The 42-point whipping Tennessee took at Arkansas was the program's worst loss since 1981, and the embarrassing loss to Kentucky for the first time in 26 years created a sour taste that wasn't extinguished until the Vols won this season's opener.

"It's a lot on our leaders, especially our senior leaders," said Lathers, one of those seniors. "It's our last go-round, and we don't want to end it like we did last year. Our job is just to lead these guys, motivate these guys and encourage these guys."

The simplest motivational ploy Dooley could use is the disappointment of last season's end.

"They probably don't see it the way coaches do, and they're so quick to appeal to their emotions and their feelings at a given moment," Dooley said. "Anybody that was on this team last year, we all remember how we felt at the end of last year by how we competed, and we certainly don't want that to happen. I don't think our team wants that to happen, so we've got to go out there and prepare right and go play our best and focus on this game and go one at a time."

Given the disappointment of the winless league record and frustration of some missed chances at big wins, any victory would do the Vols good.

"It's a [tough] feeling knowing that we left a lot of plays out on the field in these big SEC games," Maggitt said. "We competed well, but I didn't feel like we could do as best as we could [to win]. I'm personally going out there trying to do my best for the seniors ... guys that have been here a long time and guys that deserve to go out with a bang unlike last year.

"I felt like we let them down, and that's not going to happen this year."

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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