Brick by brick. That is the mantra of the 2013 Tennessee football team — the 117th in the storied history of the school. On this balmy afternoon on summer’s final weekend, Team 117 showed it is still quite a few bricks away from returning to the fortress of success the Volunteers were prior to 2004.
The Vols were a team unable to gain any offensive rhythm in the first half when they managed just 31 total yards on 25 plays. Much of the problem, per senior right guard Zach Fulton, had everything to do with miscommunication with a healthy assist from Florida’s ferocious defensive line. Florida Buck end Dante Fowler was particularly menacing with three tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, a sack and a fumble recovery as he menaced redshirt freshman quarterback Nate Peterman from Fruit Cove, Florida.
During the week leading up to the game, indecision reigned supreme in Knoxville about which quarterback would be under center for the Volunteers. The options were either junior Justin Worley or Peterman. Worley had underwhelming success in the first three games, averaging only 173 yards per game to help the Vols to a No. 114 ranking in pass offense heading into Gainesville. Peterman got the nod and it wasn’t very pretty. Peterman’s stat line before he was taken out of the game was an ugly 4-11 for 5 yards with two interceptions. When Peterman got yanked late in the first half, Worley regained his No. 1 quarterback role.
“I thought he stood in the pocket — I thought Justin was decisive — and that’s the big thing that we want him to do more is attack,” Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said.
To say the Volunteers’ offense was horrible in the first half is putting it lightly. Florida had three backs (tailbacks Mack Brown and Matt Jones and quarterback Tyler Murphy) all had as many or more yards rushing than the UT team had total offense in the first half. Tennessee’s only score came off its defense on an interception returned 62 yards for a touchdown, which was double the Vols offensive output in the first half.
The real undoing for Tennessee however was four first half turnovers, two Peterman interceptions and two fumbles. In addition to more turnovers (4) than first downs (3), there were as many turnovers as Peterman had completions. It’s a bad day when you have one more passing yard (5) than you have turnovers.
It was a performance that would have made General Robert Neyland turn in his grave. One of the general’s famous game maxims of football reads: “The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win.”
After that mistake-filled first half, Tennessee coach Butch Jones was candid his halftime conversation with his team.
“[I told them] that we probably played the worst half of football that we could play offensively,” Jones said. “To beat a good football team at home first and foremost you cannot turn the ball over, way too many turnovers.”
To their credit, the Volunteers came out strong in the second half, scoring a field goal on their opening drive of the third quarter and only turning the ball over twice –the last one an end of game heave toward the endzone that was intercepted.
The Vols gained 189 yards in the second half, 154 of which came through the air thanks to Worley. The Vols even had a ray of hope there in the fourth quarter when they cut Florida’s lead to 31-17 and they were 23 yards away from another touchdown with only 3:39 left in the game. They were unable to get into the endzone and turned the ball over on downs.
The fight the Vols showed in the second half wasn’t lost on Jones.
“I thought our kids showed some resiliency, they showed a blue collar football team and they didn’t quit,” Jones said. “We were fighting, we were scratching, we were clawing to the bitter end and as a football coach that’s what I was looking for. I want practice on Sunday. I want to get going because I think our team made some small steps.”
Jones has a monumental task to rebuild a broken program. He’s the fourth coach since 2008 and he has placed an importance on fishing out the small victories from the muck that is big losses.
“It hurts a lot,” Tennessee running back Rajion Neal said. “We definitely felt we had a chance to come in here and win. We can easily turn this around and have this be a 10-win season.”
A double-digit win total seems far-fetched for the Tennessee team that took the field in The Swamp this third Saturday of September. Landmines litter the rest of their schedule that includes South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama in three of the next four games.
Who knows when, or if Tennessee will ever be back to its powerhouse status, but for Team 117 they will need to begin the process of building back towards success. Brick by brick.