KNOXVILLE - The wonderful former voice of college football Keith Jackson once described football as "a game of acquirin'." As in, "Whoa, Nelly, the team that acquires the most yards today is going to win."
It's a simple but effective way to explain the game we Southerners spend our fall weekends soaking in and sometimes agonizing over. And right now the University of Tennessee's offense just ain't acquirin' when it needs to most, which is causing more agonizing than celebrating for Vol Nation.
All UT fans hoped for better coming into the season, but Saturday's 31-24 escape against South Alabama was just the latest example of reality screaming how far away the program is talent-wise. Here were the Volunteers sweating out a late drive, hoping to hold on to beat a mediocre Sun Belt Conference opponent, in front of a half-empty Neyland Stadium.
While that will make for a busy week on talk radio, as Vols fans vent over the state of the team's quarterback position, it also paints a bleak picture for the immediate future of the program, with a run of seven straight SEC games looming.
After seemingly taking control of the offense from the midpoint of the first quarter, helping UT build a 24-7 lead early in the second quarter, Justin Worley quickly regressed for most of the team's final eight possessions.
He threw interceptions into the end zone on the Vols' last two first-half possessions, preventing them from building on their lead and potentially getting one of the two true freshman quarterbacks some much needed and anticipated game-situation snaps.
Then, after needing less than three minutes to take the opening drive of the second half 76 yards in seven plays (60 yards of which came on the ground) to go ahead 31-7, the Vols managed just 68 yards the rest of the game.
That's six possessions, 68 total yards in the second half, and 41 of those came on a nine-play drive that ended with a botched 52-yard field-goal attempt. The other possessions included three three-and-outs, a one-play interception and four snaps to run out the clock.
"It [stinks]," Worley said when asked about the two interceptions in the end zone to end the first half. "You don't want to go through that situation. It hurts and, yeah, it kind of rattles you a little bit.
"I've got to work on being more consistent."
One play after Brent Brewer picked off a tipped Jaguars pass, putting Tennessee in good position to stretch its 24-point lead, Worley's third pickoff of the game was returned inside the Vols' 10-yard line, flipping the momentum to the visitors. They closed the game with 17 unanswered points and were throwing into the end zone with less than two minutes remaining for a potential game-tying TD.
By the time the game finally ended, Worley had completed just three of his last 12 attempts, including missing on his last four. He's thrown five interceptions in his last six quarters of action, which chips into that "game manager" label he was given before the season.
After having the ball for more than 10 minutes in the second quarter alone, the Vols held it for barely more than 12 minutes of the second half.
Instead of slamming the door on South Alabama, UT's stagnant offense again left enough of a crack for the Jaguars to wear down the defense and rally.
"Our margin of error is very, very small," UT coach Butch Jones said. "We have to be a team that overachieves. It starts with taking care of the football. I don't think we relaxed. We stopped paying attention to the small details, and that adds up to the big details. It's hard for young players to understand that.
"When [the freshman quarterbacks] are ready to play, they'll be ready to play. We've been doing this a long time, so we'll know when they're ready. At the end of the game, I still believe in Justin. Justin still needs as many repetitions as the freshmen do so he can get better."
The biggest concern for UT, however, is that Worley will be acquirin' those repetitions against SEC foes from here on, leaving much less room for errors like the ones he made Saturday.
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.