KNOXVILLE — An advanced knowledge of football intricacies was not required to understand Tennessee coach Butch Jones' postmortem assessment of his team's 15-9 loss to South Carolina.
"I thought we did all the things it takes to play winning football except one element," Jones said Monday. "We spoke about it after the game, and that's score touchdowns in the red zone. We had to kick field goals."
Tennessee's defense played well enough to give the Volunteers a chance, and the offense never turned the football over, despite a rough day overall. In the end, the inability to punch the ball into the end zone cost the Vols a victory for the second time this season.
In the earlier 26-20 loss at Florida, Tennessee's only points on three red-zone trips came on an Aaron Medley field goal that tied the game in the final minute before Florida's game-winning touchdown.
After coming away with nine points on four red-zone trips Saturday, Tennessee ranks last in the Southeastern Conference in red-zone scoring percentage. On 19 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line, the Vols have scored 10 touchdowns and made four field goals while coming away without points on five occasions.facebook
"It's a combination of a breakdown here and a breakdown there," Jones said. "It's everywhere."
Saturday's red-zone miscues were the latest woe for an offense that has not scored a touchdown in the last 10 quarters. Also lacking, Jones noted Monday, have been big plays.
Until a 39-yard pass from Jarrett Guarantano to Brandon Johnson that sparked Tennessee's final possession against South Carolina, the Vols' longest plays of the game came on their first drive in the form of 24- and 30-yard runs by John Kelly and Ty Chandler.
In Guarantano's first collegiate start, Tennessee was hesitant to allow the redshirt freshman to throw the football downfield. He entered the game's final drive just 7-of-10 passing for 61 yards.
The Vols play Saturday at top-ranked Alabama with Guarantano again penciled in atop the depth chart at quarterback.
"We'll continue to evolve," Jones said. "It's about playing to his strengths, or whoever the quarterback is. We'll continue to evolve. I think the other thing you have to be cognizant of is not to give him too much. We want his ability to take over. We don't want his mind to tie his feet up or his thought process as well.
"I think it's a combination of the volume. What can he handle? And just the ability to go out and play freely. That starts with preparation and it starts with practice."
Guarantano rolled out to the right and fired toward Johnson in the end zone as the final second ticked off the clock Saturday. His pass fell incomplete and Guarantano fell to the ground near the South Carolina sideline after slamming his helmet against the grass.
Johnson said Monday that "I want that one back."
"It was (a catch) I know I can make, and I just hope I get another opportunity to make a play like that," Johnson said.
The sophomore receiver did not mind the display of emotion from his quarterback.
"He's a competitor and he always wants to win," Johnson said of Guarantano. "I kind of like that coming from my quarterback just from a standpoint of he doesn't want to lose at all. He's trying to do everything he can to win the game. His first start, you know he wanted it bad."
Johnson said the offense expects to make big plays and the players trust the play-calling.
Even Kelly, who carried just four times in the second half of Saturday's game, supported first-year offensive coordinator Larry Scott on Monday.
"He knows what he's doing up there," Kelly said. "I didn't even notice that until the game was over. We were just playing so hard. I wasn't even in the thought of how many carries I was having. I was just out there playing."
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com.