Operating on the premise there’s much to be gained from a loss, Josh Heupel was especially observant this week.
Tennessee’s first-year head football coaching watched every move his players made following last Saturday’s loss to Pittsburgh. Everything from their attentiveness in meetings to their competitiveness on the practice field was scrutinized.
Did they process the result constructively and move forward? Were they distracted by anything said or written outside of the team setting? In football-team terms, were they able to block out the noise?
Presumably, Heupel gathered some useful background regarding the Vols’ makeup. The info might turn out to be better than anything gained from this Saturday’s game against Tennessee Tech beyond the presumed result. Their FCS status notwithstanding, the Golden Eagles, by about any measure, will be an underwhelming opponent. They’ve been outscored 78-14 in their first two games. Samford and Furman were the opponents, not some Power 5 powerhouses.
Tech likely will magnify UT’s stature to funhouse mirror proportions. The Vols will not look any bigger or better this season than they will beginning with a noon kickoff.
Therefore, what’s to be gained from Saturday’s exercise?
Well, Tennessee’s wide receivers couldn’t get any more open for quarterback Joe Milton III than they did on several occasions last Saturday while running deep routes. There’s bound to be an opportunity for Milton to address his wayward accuracy. But will Milton play? He left the Pitt game with an injury and Heupel offered no update Thursday on Milton’s status or the availability of the other injured players.
Regardless of personnel, there are some performance issues worth addressing.
The Vols were whistled for 13 penalties totaling 134 yards against Pittsburgh. Several of the infractions were especially crippling.
-Three penalties – false start, unsportsmanlike conduct and offensive pass interference – occurred in a four-play second quarter sequence, beginning at Pitt’s 3-yard line. The penalties transformed what looked to be a sure touchdown drive into a long 48-yard field goal by Chase McGrath.
-A UT block-in-the-back penalty was part of offsetting penalties that negated Theo Jackson’s 100-yard TD return of a field goal attempt by the Panthers.
-On a third-quarter play, the entire offensive line was whistled for false start.
“It really is about controlling the controllables for yourself and inside the program,” Heupel said.
“That’s where we have to continue to get better. This week, as much as it is about any opponent, it’s always true. It’s really about yourself.”
Another pressing issue is turnovers. Against Pittsburgh, Tennessee committed three and didn’t come up with one. While the disparity only added up to three points in the Panthers’ favor, the Vols aren’t good enough to overcome such an imbalance long term. Add the Bowling Green game, and Tennessee is a minus-five in turnovers.
Despite recording 21 tackles for lost yardage, UT’s defense has yet to record a turnover.
“It’s not from a lack of stressing it, from a program stance,” Heupel said. “It’s one of the things I talk about every day with the players. We chart it and monitor it, and our defense (gets) reps every single day. It’s the first thing they do when we break from our stretch following walk-through. At the end of the day, you’ve got to continue to get hands on balls.”
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at email@example.com.