Hargis: Vols offense must find its rhythm to have a shot in the Swamp

AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel yells to his players as they warm up for Saturday's home game against Austin Peay.
AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel yells to his players as they warm up for Saturday's home game against Austin Peay.

KNOXVILLE — Admit it, when you looked at the schedule and saw Austin Peay, you skipped past Saturday's tuneup and went straight to thinking about the University of Tennessee's trip to the Swamp next week for its Southeastern Conference opener.

So did I. So did pretty much all of Saturday's sold-out crowd filling Neyland Stadium. So did every Volunteers podcaster and sports talk radio show all week.

Apparently, so did pretty much every Tennessee football player, too.

It happens. It's only natural to overlook a middling Football Championship Subdivision opponent — one that had gotten trounced in its season opener and was expected to be nothing more than stats-padding fodder — particularly when one of UT's longest-running nemesis is waiting for next weekend's sweltering showdown in Gainesville.

But anyone who cares about the direction this season is headed should pause before shrugging off what has to be considered the Vols' worst performance of Josh Heupel's short tenure — yes, worse even than last year's inexplicable thumping at the hands of South Carolina, which could at least be reasoned as being a road game against an SEC foe.

Name a facet of the game, and Tennessee looked downright uninterested in its attention to detail against the Governors, and worse, was outplayed for much of its hum-drum 30-13 win.

Receiver Ramel Keyton lost a fumble in the red zone to stop a likely scoring drive. The Vols committed 10 penalties, including multiple infractions that negated opportunities to score touchdowns instead of settling for field goals. The defense gave up big plays and struggled at times to get off the field on third down, and the special teams once again committed inexplicable gaffes — another punt that went for fewer than 30 yards and another kickoff that bounced out of bounds to give the Govs great field position.

Most glaring, similar to last week's sputtering start against Virginia in Nashville, UT's offense began Saturday's game in neutral. The first four possessions went: three plays for 5 yards, four plays for 13 yards, four plays for 2 yards (and a field goal after a fumble recovery), followed by a series in which UT drove to the Austin Peay 17 on five runs before turning the ball over on downs when a fourth-down pass fell incomplete.

At that point, Austin Peay had outgained UT 63-59 in total yards, and whether it was throwing behind receivers, whizzing passes when touch was needed — yes there were also flat-out drops — Joe Milton was just 1-of-8 passing for 11 yards.

"We were a little bit off offensively, particularly early," said Heupel, whose team didn't take its first lead until just 15 seconds remained before halftime. "We've got to get into the flow of the football game. That's got to be Joe, it's got to be us growing up and making the difficult catch and better ball security on the perimeter.

"We missed some, we dropped a couple, we busted protection. You have to have 11 guys operate at a high level. There's a lot of things that we can control that we can do better."

Pausing to consider the magnitude of the opponent awaiting at the end of this next week, Heupel added: "Urgency in how we come back. It's about how we come back (Sunday) afternoon and Monday, that's absolutely critical for us."

Whether it's been second-half collapses or late-game heroics — impossibly long Florida touchdown passes in the closing stages of both the 2015 and 2017 matchups — the Swamp has been UT's house of horrors for decades.

It was a place Hendon Hooker couldn't win two years ago. Or Peyton Manning in two attempts. Or Tee Martin. Or Josh Dobbs. Or any other Vols quarterback besides Casey Clausen, who pulled off the feat in 2001 and 2003.

Last year's win over Florida was what ignited UT's run all the way to a No. 1 spot in the initial College Football Playoff rankings. Getting the Gators off their backs at home was one thing, but going into the Swamp and coming away with a win will begin with Milton taking charge of cleaning up the offensive miscues.

"It's just a matter of executing," said Milton, seemingly unfazed by the panic that was creeping into the stands and throughout Big Orange Nation. "It didn't start out the way we wanted it to just because it was Austin Peay, but you can't look at teams like that, you have to go out and dominate no matter who's out there.

"No matter what happens out there we'll figure it out ourselves. Really it's just about executing. I didn't start my best, but it's not about the start, it's how you finish."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293.

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