By Steve Williams
Butch Jones told Tennessee football fans and the media last week his team had to learn how to “close out” games, after that inexcusable 31-24 double overtime loss to Oklahoma.
The way I see it, Jones needs to learn how to start a game.
On a night when Neyland Stadium was never louder and over a hundred thousand Tennessee fans were primed to see the Vols’ biggest win in years from their Orange and White checkerboard sections, Jones chose to kick a field goal with the ball inside the 1.
What a wimpy call.
The conditions were perfect for Tennessee to go for the touchdown. Knoxville product Todd Kelly Jr. had intercepted an Oklahoma pass on the game’s opening series. Even if the Vols didn’t get the TD, the Sooners’ offense would be left in a terrible hole.
Making the choice Jones made takes away energy and confidence from a team. Can you imagine how the offensive linemen felt?
I wonder what 6-4, 242-pound running back Jalen Hurd was thinking too when he was on the sideline on third-and-one? Butch said Hurd wasn’t in there because he was “winded.”
Winded midway through the first quarter? Come on.
It was a call that infuriated me when it was made and one I couldn’t put to rest even when Tennessee had turned the 3-0 lead into a 17-0 advantage in the second quarter.
As far as the Vols blowing their biggest lead ever in a loss on Shields-Watkins Field, I could just sense it coming with each unproductive offensive series in the second half and the poor tackling by a tiring Tennessee defense that resulted.
But give Oklahoma credit. It became the aggressor. The Vols’ lead began to melt away as their offensive opportunities fizzled. There was just enough time for the Sooners to get even and then get out of town with the win.
We’ll never know what would have happened had Jones been aggressive and went for the touchdown instead of the field goal. But my guess is the Big Orange crowd would have gotten even louder, the team even more pumped and the lead on the scoreboard even bigger than 17-0.
In my book, this was the third game Butch has given away in his three seasons at Tennessee. In 2013 at Florida, he left a shaky Nathan Peterman in the game at quarterback way too long, preventing the Vols from capitalizing on a ton of Florida mistakes at the start. Last year, Joshua Dobbs, the best fit for Jones’ offensive system, was on the bench as the Gators sputtered past the Vols 10-9 in
In explaining his decision to kick the field goal at his press conference last Monday, Jones said, “We do everything based on analytics, so nothing is taken by chance. Probably about four or five hours went into that single decision.”
When it comes to football, the noise in the stadium, the passion of the fans, the energy and confidence of the team on the sidelines and the look in a young man’s eye I believe are more telling than analytic data.
It should have taken only four or five seconds to send in Hurd.
Butch has proven he can recruit with the best, and while it’s necessary to have talent to win, a coach must also have the knack for making the right decisions during key moments in a game. It’s called having a “feel” for the game.
From what I have seen so far, Jones doesn’t have that.
Butch’s sales pitch to the fans last week was his team was competitive against Oklahoma this season, while last year’s team wasn’t. That’s progress, he said.
Jones is right about that, but Tennessee could have been more than just competitive. It very well could have been the team that left with the win, if Butch had made the right decision at the start of the game.