Mark Wiedmer: UT still can't catch 'opportunity balls'

Mark Wiedmer: UT still can't catch 'opportunity balls'

October 28th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscolumns

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COLUMBIA, S.C. - It could have been the greatest day of Derek Dooley's largely unhappy life as Tennessee's football coach.

Twice in the last 90 seconds of a thoroughly unpredictable Southeastern Conference football game Saturday afternoon at South Carolina, Dooley presided over a grand opportunity to notch his first win against a ranked opponent in 15 tries.

Twice. In 90 seconds.

Kind of like the Georgia game earlier this month.

A lot like the LSU and North Carolina games his first season in 2010, though those basically were stolen from him by incompetent officiating.

And given those close calls -- along with a somewhat similar sad ending at Mississippi State two weekends ago -- you'd think plain, old luck would turn Dooley's way eventually.

You'd think that UT quarterback Tyler Bray wouldn't fumble when sacked for the only time all afternoon by SEC sack master Jadeveon Clowney. Especially after Bray later admitted, "Every quarterback hears him (you can't forget about a player like that), and I tried to throw it out of bounds, but he caught my arm."

Yet even then, a measly 68 seconds on the clock, the Volunteers down three and the Gamecocks owning the ball, UT hung in there. It got the ball back with 36 seconds on the clock, albeit 84 yards from the end zone with no timeouts and needing to cover at least 55 of those yards in two or three plays to have any chance to kick a tying field goal and force overtime.

But at least the Vols had a chance.

And Bray was determined to make the most of it, slinging the football as few besides he can sling it, high and hard and true, down the right sideline and in the very specific direction of 6-foot-4 wideout Justin Hunter, who already had caught eight passes for 90 yards.

"Opportunity balls," Dooley calls such passes, meaning an opportunity to do something special.

Hunter was covered by 5-10 Victor Hampton at the South Carolina 38, which meant a high, hard and true pass should have been his dream come true.

Only it didn't work out that way. Despite Hunter seeming to get his large, soft hands on the football first, Hampton took it from him as they fell to earth.

It was Bray's only interception of the game, even though it easily could have been a 46-yard gain.

"I guess I jumped too late," Hunter said after the 38-35 Tennessee loss. "I had the ball in my hands, but I guess he was able to make the play."

Said Dooley -- now 0-5 within the SEC for the third time in his two-plus seasons, now 1-12 in his last 13 SEC games, now 3-5 overall this year -- "It's the same old song and dance in the SEC."

He then added, "We didn't really accomplish what we wanted to against these SEC top teams, but we have to turn the page. There is a lot at stake down the stretch, and we could still have a really good season."

I've defended Dooley's continued employment through next season throughout all of this season. I still feel that way, though I'm beginning to wonder about the fundamentals of his defense, which is an affront to the word "defense," given that the Vols have surrendered an average of 42 points and 522 yards per SEC game thus far.

Yes, the defenders somehow stopped the Gamecocks a couple of times late, but they gave up a third-and-26 play for a touchdown because a couple of them apparently forgot they had arms to wrap around tight end Rory Anderson -- instead wanting to kind of shoulder butt the 6-5, 218-pounder to the ground.

It's not only the defense. On a third-and-inches for the UT offense after that TD, senior lineman Dallas Thomas moved before the snap, forcing a third-and-5, which resulted in a fourth down, which resulted in a shanked punt that led to another Gamecocks score and a 21-7 lead.

"Our identity is to give up a lot of big plays but keep fighting and try to hunker down at the end and win," a frustrated Dooley said. "So far that identity has gotten us 3-5. We need to fix our identity."

They tried to fix some portions of their identity before this latest loss. Bray cut his hair, then seemed at least mildly hurt that no reporters asked about it after the loss until prompted. The players wore orange pants as some sign of support for Dooley's orange pants.

Despite that defenseless "D" from new coordinator Sal Sunseri, there is yet to be the public finger-pointing from players that so often happens in these kinds of seasons. So there are mildly hopeful signs that the Vols would still rather win than lose.

Or as senior tight end Mychal Rivera said, "We're fighting, and if you look at last year we weren't fighting like we should have."

And Dooley is right that there is still a lot at stake, especially for both a bowl bid and his and his staff's future UT employment. But he is wrong that this can still be a really good season.

From this day forward it can be no better than a pretty good finish to Dooley's third straight really bad SEC start.