Wiedmer: Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley likely better choice after all

Wiedmer: Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley likely better choice after all

September 23rd, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley prepares to pass in this file photo.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Not all ideas work as well in real life as they look on paper. If they did, we might all be driving around in DeLoreans and sipping New Coke while we discussed our favorite episodes of "Joanie Loves Chachi."

So perhaps you can't half-blame first-year Tennessee football coach Butch Jones for starting Nathan Peterman at quarterback against his home state Florida Gators at the Swamp on Saturday. After the Volunteers were crushed 59-14 a week earlier at No. 2 Oregon with the reliable yet unspectacular Justin Worley at quarterback, it was somewhat understandable for Jones to want, in his words, someone to "generate big explosive plays."

But as sometimes happens in life, big and explosive occasionally blows up in your face. Steady might have been the way to win this one. It almost certainly wouldn't have resulted in a big, explosive 31-17 loss, UT's ninth straight to Florida, the last six all coming by 10 or more points.

"Everyone wants to point to the quarterback," a defensive Jones said after Peterman's first half sounded as if Charlie Brown had been inside UT jersey No. 12 -- two interceptions, 5 passing yards, minus-3 running yards, one fumble and one assist on a fumble thanks to a shaky handoff.

"[But Nate] had a great week of preparation. I was trying to let him get into rhythm. It is what it is. You're trying to give yourself the best chance to win."

But UT didn't win its first two games in spite of Worley. Nor did it lose at Oregon because of Worley. The junior from Rock Hill, S.C., didn't miss a single tackle against the Ducks. He entered the Swamp having completed 35 of 57 passes for 372 yards and five touchdowns to just one interception.

No, the offense hadn't been great in early wins over Austin Peay and Western Kentucky and last week's disaster against the Ducks. But whether it had been awful enough to warrant starting a redshirt freshman for the first time in one of least hospitable environments in all of college football is another matter.

A single verbal replay from Tennessee offensive lineman Zach Fulton regarding Peterman's first half:

"We were trying to get him on the same page as us. On one play, [Peterman] wanted to flip the protection but the blitz was coming on the side we were on. We kept trying to tell him no. To be fair, it only happened a few times. But we definitely felt more prepared with Worley in there."

They certainly looked more prepared after halftime. Though Worley also threw two interceptions -- one came on the final play of the game -- he tossed the Vols' lone touchdown on a nice 18-yard pass to Pig Howard early in the final period. He had 149 passing yards in half a game.

Afterward, the veteran said all the right things about the man who could have replaced him, noting, "I know what he's going through," and, "I feel for him," and "We'll be here to encourage him."

But he also said of that horrid opening half that Peterman made so much worse than it could have been: "We came in at halftime and said we need to be ourselves, and that's what we did."

It could be argued that nothing Jones did or didn't do this warm, breezy afternoon might have produced a win. For the second time in two weeks, most of the playmakers seemed to be on the opposite sideline from the Vols, those foes blessed with far more speed, quickness and depth.

This is what happens when you're on your fourth head coach in six seasons. This is what happens when you play two straight ranked opponents on the road early in the year, both games far from home and the first on the opposite side of the country.

This is also what happens throughout college football today when you apparently don't have a quarterback capable of making big, explosive plays, or at least not making enough of them to satisfy his head coach.

Yet this was also a game in which Florida fumbled four times in the opening half, lost two, and surrendered an interception for a touchdown but still led 17-7 at the break largely because the Vols seemed to quickly hand back every scoring opportunity the Gators presented them.

With Worley at the helm, it's almost impossible to see UT not leading by at least 10-7 at the half instead of trailing by 10. The Vols might even have had 14 points. Or more. And at least a good portion of that blame is because of the Vols' performance at quarterback. Whether the blame for that effort should be heaped on Peterman or Jones, or jointly shared, should keep water coolers and message boards crowded throughout the Big Orange Nation for at least a week or two to come.

As linebacker A.J. Johnson filed out of the Swamp, he said, "We can't leave our season in Gainesville. We've got to keep fighting."

And no doubt they will. But from now on, Jones might want to leave his quarterback experiments for home games against someone such as this week's foe, South Alabama, when an unproven QB is far more likely to produce a great explosion than a ghastly implosion.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com