Mark Wiedmer: Dooley's guts should have shown earlier

Mark Wiedmer: Dooley's guts should have shown earlier

November 11th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UT coach Derek Dooley

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

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KNOXVILLE - You can't say Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley lacks guts. When you call for a fake field goal in overtime knowing that if it fails you've probably lost your sixth Southeastern Conference game in six tries in a season, you've got guts.

And that's just what Dooley did in Saturday's second overtime against Missouri. Facing a fourth-and-3 at the Missouri 5, the game tied at 35, he called for a fake field goal, and junior holder Tyler Drummer took the snap and raced to his left and into the end zone for a 42-35 lead.

It briefly launched most of the announced Neyland Stadium crowd of 89,272 into an emotional mix of rejoicing and relief, albeit knowing that Mizzou could still win, which it did two overtimes later, prevailing 51-48 on a 35-yard field goal.

But it shouldn't have necessarily come to that bold moment. Had Dooley shown that same riverboat gambler's confidence in the final 43 seconds of regulation, the Vols might have at least had a chance to kick their own field goal for victory.

It was then, Missouri having just tied the game at 28, that UT got the ball on its own 39 with 43 seconds on the clock and two timeouts in Dooley's hip pocket.

Owning the best passing attack in the SEC, Tennessee figured to test a Mizzou secondary that had surrendered 360 yards through the air to that point and two Tyler Bray touchdown passes without an interception.

And Dooley did call for a pass on first down, but the Tigers batted it to the ground. Bray's second-down pass was an odd call to running back Marvin Lane that gained nothing.

It is at that moment that Dooley made a decision that brought boos from his own team's fans and puzzling looks from both his players and the media.

With two timeouts still available to him, needing only a field goal to win and standing within 30 yards of a makable kick for Michael Palardy, Dooley let the clock run out, apparently happy to put his defenseless defense on the field for overtime.

"[Missouri] had a timeout left," Dooley said. "I didn't want to have to punt and all the things that can happen there. We had the offense [for overtime], and I just had confidence in them."

If you're playing for a BCS bowl bid and your defense often has proved its ability to stone opponents when it matters most, that's an inarguable plan. But the Vols don't have that defense. They have the worst defense in the SEC, both by statistics and by the eye test.

These guys couldn't guard a locked safe in a room without doors. Somehow, some way, it would disappear.

Just look at Saturday. Having banished defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri to the press box after the Vols surrendered 721 yards and 48 points to Troy -- yes, TROY! -- the previous week, Dooley saw the defense he'd reportedly tweaked all week give up only 64 yards in the opening half.

Better still, Mizzou's lone score had come on a kickoff return, rather than from the line of scrimmage. Dooley said a couple of weeks ago that he was already working with the offense and special teams and he couldn't do three things at once.

So he reportedly left the offense to focus on the defense. But maybe he'd quit special teams without telling anybody. Maybe all those years around Bama coach Nick Saban were fixing the UT D. Especially since -- unlike Saban on Saturday -- Dooley wasn't facing an offense such as Texas A&M or a quarterback such as the Aggies' Johnny Manziel.

Then the second half began and the UT defense that the Big Orange Nation knows and loathes returned. The Tigers scored on a 77-yard run their first snap of the second half. They piled up over 300 yards in the third and fourth quarters.

"We dominated in the first half," Dooley noted. "But that doesn't matter."

Which is why those final 43 seconds of the fourth quarter potentially did. Having again been painfully reminded that the UT defense again was what its season-long statistics say it is, why not do everything possible to avoid relying on that Defense in overtime?

Why not throw it down the field on second and third downs to the best collection of receivers in the SEC, if not the entire country? Why not get Cordarrelle Patterson "in space," as the coaches like to say? Why not throw it high to 6-foot-4 Justin Hunter or on a crossing route to crafty tight end Mychal Rivera, who caught 10 balls this day for 129 yards?

Why? Why? WHY?

"That's Coach Dooley's call," Bray said. "He's the coach. He makes those decisions."

Yet in the fourth overtime, the final overtime, Bray and his teammates convinced their coach to run the play that failed on fourth down, the play that essentially handed the game to the Tigers.

"We begged [Dooley] to let us have the ball and we just didn't make the play," Bray said. "I thought I saw a different coverage than what they were playing."

And because of that, the Vols fall to 4-6 overall and 0-6 in the SEC, Dooley now 4-18 against the league, a stat sure to further erode his dwindling support.

"We've got a great offense," Bray noted. "It's hard to stop our offense."

Unless Dooley stops it first.