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Tennessee Football: Vols will have to find their long game to compete in SEC

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After Tennessee’s defense dominated in a victory over Virginia last week, some folks were ready to up their win total prediction from nine to 10 for the Vols.

After Tennesse’s awful outing against Austin Peay on Saturday night, those same folks might want to revert back to nine wins – maybe eight.

In arguably Tennessee’s worst performance under Josh Heupel, the Vols struggled and stumbled their way to a 30-13 win before a sellout crowd in the home opener at Neyland Stadium.

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This was an Austin Peay team that trailed Southern Illinois 42-3 entering the fourth quarter last week, an Austin Peay team that was installed as a 62.5-point underdog by one oddsmaker.

“A win, absolutely,’’ Heupel said postgame. “Do we need to be a whole lot better? Absolutely, especially on offense. … We have to take another step on the offensive side.’’

You sure do. Because what Tennessee fielded Saturday wasn’t good enough against most SEC teams. And it probably won’t be good enough against Florida this Saturday.

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Tennessee’s offense was inept at times against a much inferior opponent – which is unusual for a Heupel team. Tennessee scored just two touchdowns in 12 possessions. It struggled to complete a pass 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. It was forced to kick three field goals when drives stalled. It couldn’t score touchdowns when gifted three possessions inside the Governors territory. And it converted just 3-of-12 on third down.

Tennessee’s passing game was so ineffective throwing downfield, Huepel ditched the idea and went to a short passing game featuring mostly flanker-type screens to the outside.

Quarterback Joe Milton hit 21 of 33 passes with over 80% of his completions thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage. But his errant throws and drops by receivers forced Heipel to alter his game plan.

The short-game strategy worked against a less talented team with average-at-best cornerbacks.

It won’t work against good SEC defensive backs. And Heupel knows it.

“We’ve got to learn and react and grow from it as we enter SEC play,’’ Heupel said. “We have to be better than that.’’

Indeed you do.

Uncharacteristcally, Tennessee got off to a slow start.

Last year, Tennessee scored a touchdown on its opening drive in eight games and outscored opponents 141-72 in the first quarter.

Tennessee scored on its first possession against Virginia, but then went four drives without points.

Milton simply blamed it on a lack of execution, and not overlooking Austin Peay.

Heupel said the offense – in particular the passing game — simply isn’t in sync yet.

“We’ve got to do a better job of settling into the game earlier,’’ Heupel said.

How do you do that?

We’ll see if Tennessee has the answer when it heads to Gainesville.

Meanwhile, Tennessee’s defense played reasonbly well against an Austin Peay offense that spread the field and threw caution to the wind, going for it on fourth down multiple times – even on its own 33-yard line.

Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. The Governors were 2-of-5 in fourth-down tries and 5-of-18 in third downs.

Austin Peay broke a couple of long plays – a 45-yard run and a 52-yard touchdown pass.

Otherwise, UT managed seven sacks (UT had four against Virginia) and help Austin Peay to 79 net rushing yards on 34 carries.

Linebacker Aaron Beasley had nine tackles, five tackles for loss and two sacks. Safety Wesley Walker had six tackles, one sack and a key tackle for loss on a fourth-down try. Cornerback Kamal Hadden had an interception.

You could argue that UT’s defense outplayed the offense for the second week in a row.

That’s a good sign for the defense.

But if the offense doesn’t find itself, a 10-win season is off the table.

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