USM May Be Answer To Tennessee Shaking Four-Game Slide

Vols Have 5-0 Mark Against Saturday's Homecoming Foe

Tuesday, October 31, 2017 - by Larry Fleming

After two straight road-game SEC losses at Alabama and Kentucky, Tennessee’s slumping football team tries to focus on Saturday’s homecoming contest against Southern Miss, which is struggling every bit as much as the Vols, at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

The Vols (3-5, 0-5 SEC) have lost four in a row and five out of their last six games – an unimpressive 17-13 victory against UMass on Sept.

23 the only positive finish – and head into homecoming a slight six-point favorite and wondering how many fans are still on the bandwagon.

“I am from the state of Tennessee,” said Jashon Robertson, a 6-foot-3, 300-pound senior offensive lineman from Nashville. “I love this place and I came here to play in front of a great fan base like we have. We appreciate all the support they have given us this year and we look forward to them continuing to give us that type of support.”

However, these aren’t the best of times for the Vols, who have been steamrolled by Georgia and Alabama by a combined 86-7, lost 26-20 at Florida on the game’s final play, failed to score a touchdown in a 15-9 loss to South Carolina and fell in a rare loss to Kentucky, 29-26, when a desperation, last-gasp Hail Mary pass completion as time expired came up 3 yards short.

It was just the second loss to Kentucky in 33 years and in the aftermath of that crushing loss to a border rival the Tennessee has long dominated, the Vols woke up Sunday morning wondering if Butch Jones would still be their coach on Monday.

He was, but heat on the proverbial “hot seat” is nearing unbearable intensity for the fifth-year coach who is 14-23 in SEC play and can’t seem to find a consistent foothold against division foes Florida and Georgia, and anybody from the West.

Jones is 0-9 against SEC West teams – the Vols haven’t beaten Alabama since 2006 – and runs the risk of losing to Kentucky and Vanderbilt this season, something totally unacceptable to Tennessee fans and a fact that would cause Gen. Robert Neyland and George Cafego to roll over in their graves.

In fact, a 45-34 loss to the Commodores in 2016 put Jones on shaky ground for this season.

So, maybe the break from conference play will afford Tennessee enough breathing room to snap its current on-field skid and silence some of the boisterous noise coming from disgruntled fans who thought athletic director John Currie should have fired Jones before the sun came up on Sunday.

Social media is still an inferno over the Tennessee situation and the faithful followers are not nearly as steadfast as they were when the season began. Jones is coaching to stay in Knoxville and a slip-up against Southern Miss, which lost 30-12 to Alabama-Birmingham last weekend, would only embolden fans to put monstrous pressure on Currie to make a coaching move before the Vols travel to Missouri next week.

Saturday’s game kicks off at 7:39 p.m. and will be televised by SEC Network. Apparently, the league’s TV folks like an off-field mystery as much as a possible on-field spine-tingling thriller.

Tennessee is 5-0 against the Golden Eagles, who will be trying to rebound from a loss to an opponent that hadn’t played football in two years after the program had been disbanded. The Vols and Golden Eagles have not played since 2007.

The Vols were able to get one monkey off their backs against Kentucky when freshman tailback Ty Chandler rushed for 120 yards and scored a pair of two touchdowns on 1-yard runs, snapping a string of 15 straight quarters without an offensive TD. Chandler, playing for suspended John Kelly, also had an 80-yard touchdown run negated by a holding penalty.

Tennessee produced 445 yards of offense. The total yards and 203 rushing yards were the most in a game this season for the Vols.

“I am encouraged (with the running attack),” Robertson said. “We went down and back and a lot of guys stepped up in the back. I am proud of the way they played, the toughness displayed and the ability they displayed running the football.”

Robertson and his offensive line teammates, plus freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano need to prevent seven quarterback sacks.

Guarantano was 18 for 23 for 242 yards, but lost 60 yards on the sacks and that minus yardage was a factor in Tennessee’s inability snap the four-game losing streak.

“Losing is something that is never tolerated,” Robertson said. “It is never easy to deal with. At this point we’re battling for a bowl game. That’s the goal.”

Said defensive lineman Kendal Vickers on the team’s goal: “Just win. Winning is always a motivational factor. That’s why you play the game, so it’s the same message every week. Just go out there and get the win.”

Tennessee’s defense had its moments against Kentucky, but it couldn’t stop the Wildcats’ game-winning touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter.

“I think the defense played well, but we don’t feel like we completed our task,” junior defensive back Micah Abernathy. “We hold ourselves to a higher standard as a defense, as we have the whole year.

Inconsistency has plagued the Tennessee defense at times throughout the season, and Abernathy addressed the problem.

“We need to lock in on the small details of our run defense and even the deep ball,” Abernathy said. “We just need to lock in.”

The Golden Eagles (5-3, 3-2 Conference USA), outscored 200-55 in the five meetings – all played in Knoxville – with Tennessee, are coming off their most disappointing performance of the season. UAB outscored Southern Miss 23-0 after halftime.

For comparison’s sake, Kentucky beat Southern Miss 24-17 in the season-opening game.

Golden Eagles quarterback Keon Howard had an up-and-down game the Blazers, throwing an 84-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, but was replaced in the lineup after throwing four straight incompletions in the fourth quarter.

Saturday’s game will be the first of three home games in November, but it shapes up as the Vols’ best chance of a win down the stretch. Tennessee goes to Missouri on Nov. 11 and round out the regular season with home games against LSU (Nov. 18) and Vanderbilt (Nov. 25).

(Contact Larry Fleming at larryfleming44@gmail.com and on Twitter @larryfleming44)

 

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