In a blowout win over Missouri last season, Vols coach Josh Heupel had a decision to make with less than 40 seconds remaining.
Run a play or run out the clock.
Heupel ran a play. And Tennessee scored its final touchdown in a 62-24 rout.
Heupel’s decision was met with some criticism from those that felt he ran up the score.
“I don’t know what the right thing to do is in that moment,’’ was the postgame comment from Heupel, who wanted to reward his backups by allowing them to score a touchdown.
Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said he wasn’t offended.
“He coaches his team. I coach my team,’’ Drinkwitz said. “So it’s our job to defend what they do.’’
But what a coach says publicly and what he feels privately can be very different. Don’t think for a second Drinkwitz isn’t reminding his team that Tennessee rub salt in the wounds with that last score.
Whether that makes a difference in Saturday’s key SEC game at Columbia, Mo., remains to be seen. Each team is 7-2, 3-2 in SEC play. Kickoff is 3:30 on CBS. The Vols are a one-point favorite.
Here are several keys for Tennessee.
Pound it on the Ground
Tennessee has pounded Missouri the last two years running the ball, averaging 361 yards per game, 7.5 yards per carry – and that includes some short-yardage garbage-time runs – and scoring 11 touchdowns.
Missouri’s run defense allows only 114.3 yards per game to rank fifth in the SEC.
Tennessee’s run game got 232 yards against Texas A&M’s then-No. 2 run defense and 254 against Kentucky’s then-No. 2 run defense.
Maybe UT’s run game is a tough matchup for Drinkwitz’s run defense. Or maybe Missouri’s run defense is much better than it’s been the last two years.
Either way, look for the Vols to rush for well over 200 yards.
Jaylen Wright leads UT’s rush attack with 91.8 yards per game on 12 carries per game and 7.5 yards per carry.
Stop the Run
Missouri averages almost 150 rush yards per game and the Tigers claim the SEC’s No. 1 rusher in Cody Schrader (102.1 yards per game, 5.7 yards per carry, 10 touchdowns).
But last year, Schrader, a former walk-on from Truman University, gained just 25 yards and 10 carries against UT.
A bigger threat might be quarterback Brady Cook, who ran for 106 yards on 16 carries against UT last year.
Cooks ranks fourth in the SEC in total offense per game (293.8) and while he has rushed for a net of only 173 yards, he is dangerous outside the pocket.
Containing Cook is an integral part of UT stopping the run game.
Joe Milton needs to remain efficient.
Milton has played well the last three games, appearing more confident and comfortable in UT’s offense.
Against UConn, he was 11 of 14 for 254 yards.
Against Kentucky, he was 17 of 20 for 227 yards.
That’s 82.4% accuracy in the past two games. Take that, Hendon Hooker!
In a loss to Alabama, Milton was 28 of 41 for 271 yards. But more importantly, discounting sacks, he ran 12 times for 93 yards.
If Milton continues to run effectively and pass accurately, UT’s offense will be hard to stop.
By the way, Missouri’s defense ranks sixth in the SEC in total yards allowed and eighth in scoring.
Contain Luther Burden III
Burden is the best wide receiver in the SEC and one of the best in the nation.
The former five-star recruit has 64 catches for 958 yards and seven touchdowns. He averages 106.4 receiving yards per game.
Burden is dynamic with the ball in his hands, breaking tackles in space and producing on reverses or speed sweeps.
Last year, UT limited Burden to three catches for 19 yards and a score. If UT can do that again, that is a huge win for the defense.
The Vols are the SEC’s most penalized team, averaging 8.44 per game compared to opponent’s 5.33. UT ranks 126 in the nation in penalties per game.
UT has been susceptible to infractions on the road. The Vols had 10 in a loss at Florida, eight in a loss at Alabama, nine in a win at Kentucky.
Even in one-sided wins, the Vols had 10 penalties against Austin Peay and 11 against UConn.
The cleanest game of the season was the opener against Virginia – four penalties.
Key penalties at key moments could prove costly against Missouri.
PREDICTION: Tennessee 38-34