After falling 28-27 to the Florida Gators, there are quite a few Tennessee Volunteer fans concerned about Butch Jones and the coaching staff. The Vols loss came after Tennessee gave up a 13 point lead in the fourth quarter, the second time in three games that Tennessee has led by 13 or more in the fourth and blown their lead. So what’s going on? Are the coaches really to blame? This post aims to examine what went wrong and how Coach Jones can fix it.
For the sake of length, I split this post into two pieces. The page you are on now will look at some of Jones’ overall game management decisions The previous part (link here) examined the offensive playcalling and what offensive coordinator Mike DeBord is doing..
Something about Jones that has frustrated me for a while is poor timeout management. Something Derek Dooley got a lot of flak for as the Volunteers coach was for having too many or not enough players on the field at a certain time. Unfortunately, Jones has had the same problem; it just hasn’t received as much attention. It seems like every few games Jones has to burn a timeout, often in a special teams situation, because the right players weren’t on the field or the team wasn’t ready for a given situation. Jones calls timeout in special teams situations more than almost any coach I’ve studied.
This was the case against Florida as poor management resulted in 2 wasted timeouts and big fourth down conversions for Florida.
The first came on a fourth and 2 when Florida lined up to punt in the second quarter. The Vols had a call on to stay in punt safe, but not everyone got the call. The Vols only had 10 guys on the field (Cameron Sutton, the punt returned, is not in the picture) and Butch has to call for timeout.
So after having time to think about it, Florida decides to go for it and ends up converting. They ended up punting four plays later, but this was still a costly mistake.
Ultimately, this is the right decision to call timeout by Butch. You cannot afford to play with only 10 players and risk giving up a fake punt. However, this is not the first time the Vols have had substitution issues on special teams and that ultimately is Jones’ responsibility.
The next poor use of a timeout came towards the middle of the third quarter. With just over 6 minutes remaining, Florida faced a fourth and six from the Volunteer 25 yard line. The Gators sent freshman walk-on kicker Jorge Powell out to take his first college attempt from 42 yards away. With the score 20-7, a field goal wouldn’t have hurt Tennessee too badly. Even if Powell made the kick, it would still be a two possession game, and the kick wouldn’t be easy for a seasoned veteran, much less a freshman kicking for the first time ever.
But Jones called timeout. Why? That isn’t very clear. After the game he said it was bercause he thought a fake field goal was on. Because of the television camera angle, it is impossible to see if Florida had any unusual personnel on the field or the Vols were misaligned.
Anyways, Florida coach Jim McElwain changed his mind in the ensuing huddle and decided to go for it. The Gators converted once again and one play later they marched in the end zone to cut the score to 20-14.
Overall, I do understand why Jones called both timeouts. But if he had the right personnel on the field for the punt and the field goal team better prepared for a fake, then neither timeout is necessary. Florida kicks away both times. They never score that touchdown. The Vols would also have one extra timeout in their back pocket for a late game two minute drill, which as we will see in a few minutes, is very important.
2 POINT CONVERSION?
In the post game press conference, Jones responded this way when asked about his decision to kick an extra point rather than go for 2. “Well a number of reasons and we were discussing that prior to the drive. If we did score whether we go for one or two, we have a chart that is pretty standard in football first of all and maps it all.”
Well Jones is right about one thing. There is a chart that is pretty standard in football. Nearly every coach has a 2 point conversion chart. It is something that can be easily referenced in the middle of the game to aid a decision on whether to go for it or kick.
While the chart tells you exactly what to do, sometimes some common sense is needed. For example, in the first half you almost always want to kick, regardless of the chart, and take the sure points, rather than risk not scoring at all. In the third quarter, it is a tougher decision. In the fourth quarter, one should almost always do what the chart says. The reason being is simple. With time running out, it is imperative that you score now. With only a few more possessions left in the game, the time to be aggressive and make your move is now.
Here’s what it looks like
So let’s look at the situation Tennessee faced. With 10:19 left in the game, the Vols scored a touchdown to go up 26-14. Tennessee led by 12. The chart says go for two. Every 2 point conversion chart I have ever seen says go for two. If Jones’ chart really says kick the point after, it is unlike any chart I’ve ever seen. There is no advantage to kicking the point after. Let’s look at the three possible scenarios for Tennessee in this situation.
- Tennessee kicks the PAT and goes up by 13. Florida must score two touchdowns and one extra point to tie, or two touchdowns and two extra points to win.
- Tennessee goes for two, does not convert (or misses PAT), and remains up by 12. Florida must score two touchdowns to tie, or two touchdowns and one extra point to win.
- Tennessee goes for two and converts to go up by 14. Florida must score two touchdowns and two extra points to tie, or two touchdowns, one extra point, and one two point conversion to win.
The problem here is that for Florida, there isn’t much difference in scenario 1 and 2. In both cases, all they have to do is score two touchdowns and make their extra points (an almost 100% chance of success) to win the game. In scenario 3, doing this only ties the game. Florida would have to go for two (not even 50% chance of success) to win. If the Vols had converted the two point attempt, they would have doubled their chances of not losing in regulation!
By choosing to kick, Tennessee did nothing to help their chances of victory. A 12 point lead is practically the same as a 13 point lead with only 10 minutes remaining. The only difference is Florida has to make one extra point, a play that is almost a 100% certainty. Unless you think Florida is going to miss one extra point, there is no reason to kick.
No matter what Jones says, it is pretty clear. The decision to kick was wrong and there isn’t a good way to argue in Jones’ favor. The coaches were either unprepared for the situation, or they have a chart that goes against conventional wisdom. With only 10 minutes left, saying it is too early to go for it is not a valid excuse.
4 MINUTE OFFENSE
One drive in particular sticks out like a sore thumb to me. With 4:09 left in the game, the Vols led by 6 and had their own 15. All Tennessee has to do is run the clock out and they win. However, Jones regressed back to what he did versus Oklahoma. He went conservative. Instead of aggressively trying to secure the win by picking up a first down, the Vols ran twice right up the middle on basic inside zone plays with Hurd. Based on the conservative run first attitude in the second half, Florida was ready. On both first and second down, the Gators put eight defenders in the box (compared to the Vols’ six blockers) and played the Tennessee receivers straight up in man coverage. Hurd never had a chance. The Vols were outnumbered from the start, and Tennessee was stuck in a third and six situation.
On third down, what do the Vols do? Stay conservative. DeBord went to a pin and pull sweep for Dobbs (one he had called from this same formation numerous times already) and Florida sniffed it out from the start. The Gators had a run blitz on and were able to easily contain Dobbs for a four yard loss.
So what would’ve been the right call? I do understand why Jones and DeBord wanted to keep the ball on the ground and the clock moving. However, there are two big things that I wish had been done differently.
First, if you’re going to run, why not give Dobbs a give/keep option? Tennessee’s best runs on the day came when Dobbs and Hurd ran the option and put a defender in a bind. An option play couldn’t have hurt, and certainly would’ve helped the Vols since the Gators had to many run defenders to block.
Second, after the first snap DeBord should’ve seen that Florida was in an incredibly aggressive run defense. If Florida is going to sell out on the run, you have to make them pay. Instead, DeBord and Jones played right into Florida’s hands. The Gators sold out because they believed that Tennessee wouldn’t even try to pass – and they were right. The Vols had shown no willingness to pass throughout the game and the Gators knew it. DeBord had soft man coverage with no safety help across the board on first and second down, and the Gators only adjustment on third down was to drop one safety deep. If DeBord had recognized that and made an adjustment, second down could’ve been a quick run fake to pull the linebackers before Dobbs pulled the ball and threw to a wide open receiver on a quick slant or hitch. Instead, Tennessee did exactly what Florida knew they would do – run the ball right into the teeth of the defense. The Vols had to punt and gave the Gators one more chance with the ball, and this would prove costly.
2 MINUTE DRILL
Despite it all, Dobbs and the offense were afforded one last chance. With 1:21, the Vols had the ball at their own 32 and two timeouts, only down 1. With the correct clock management and smart passes, Tennessee should be able to move the ball into Aaron Medley’s field goal range.
The drive began with a good play for the Vols. Dobbs was able to hit his tight end Ethan Wolf over the middle of the field for an 11 yard gain and a first down. (Side note: This is exactly the type of play I was talking about when I wrote about what the Vols need to beat man to man coverage a few weeks ago – use your big, athletic tight end over the middle).
So far, so good. But not so fast my friends. Look at where the clock is when Wolf went to the ground.
Now look at how much time is left when the refs stop the clock to move the chains.
That’s a 10 second run off! Absolutely unacceptable by the officiating crew.
That can clearly be blamed on the officials. But from this point on, all one can see is a comedy of errors by Tennessee that cost the Vols a chance to win this game.
Tennessee lines up and snaps the ball with 56 seconds left. But left tackle Kyler Kerbyson moved early. So the Vols take a 5 yard penalty and have to burn a timeout to avoid a 10 second run off.
DeBord responds with a brilliant playcall. So far, the Vols favorite pass play had been had been to line up in a trey formation (three receivers to one side, a tight end and a back to the other) and throwing the ball to the back in the flat.
As Tennessee lined up in the trey formation again, I immediately thought that this was what they were trying to do here. But DeBord had one more trick up his sleeve. Instead of running to the flat, running back Alvin Kamara faked a flat route and turned it into a wheel and ended up wide open for a first down. Dobbs hit him in the perfect spot, right between the linebacker and cornerback, and the Vols were in business. Great call By DeBord.
The ball stayed in bounds however, so the clock kept rolling. After losing 10 seconds, Dobbs snapped the ball with 40 seconds remaining. He dropped to pass, but couldn’t find anyone and took off running. Unfortunately, Dobbs fumbled the ball out of bounds after gaining 8 yards. The officials were temporarily confused because Dobbs fumbled while still in bounds, but the ball went out of bounds, so the clock was temporarily stopped. Ultimately, they made the right call and started the clock back up. However, it still took Tennessee 12 seconds of game time (and 30 seconds of real time!) to line up and snap the ball. That is way too much time in this situation. A timeout here would’ve helped, but the Vols have already spent two of them, one to allow Florida to convert a fourth down and the other because of a false start. Taking 30 seconds to get lined up is way, way too long.
This is where it all came unhinged. With 17 seconds to go, DeBord made a good playcall. Josh Malone ran a deep route to clear out space for Ethan Wolf on the sideline. Wolf was wide open and Dobbs hit him with the pass. The design of the play is to get a quick gain then get out of bounds. Unfortunately, there was confusion over whether Wolf actually did get out. Because of the first down, the clock automatically stops to move the chains. In the following video, you can see Jones frantically asking the official if the clock was about to restart on the sideline.
Jones gets word that the clock will restart and the Vols line up to spike the ball. Dobbs and the offense are in position to spike with 8 seconds on the clock. With one timeout left, this would give the Vols the opportunity to run one more play (maybe a run with Hurd to attack Florida’s pass defense) to set up a roughly 45 yard kick, very reasonable, on the final play.
But instead, there is confusion on the sideline. A member of the field goal team, Joe Stocstill, inexplicably runs onto the field. This is horrible. With one timeout left, there would never be a reason for Stocstill and the field goal team to have to run on the field. That would only be the case if the Vols were out of timeouts. This is an unexplainable error that ultimately was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
One official stepped up to Dobbs to keep him from snapping the ball, while another threw his flag for illegal substation on Stocstill. With Dobbs unable to snap the ball, the clock is now at 3 seconds and the ball is backed up 5 yards. Now Aaron Medley has to kick from 55 yards away.
What would’ve been the right call here? Jones should’ve recognized that a penalty was inevitable as soon as Stocstill ran on the field and called timeout. This would’ve saved 5 yards and given Medley a much more makeable field goal.
Here is a video of all the action I just summarized, starting from Dobbs’ run and going through the final penalty. I wanted to leave it all together instead of dividing it into individual plays so that you can see what happens in between each snap.
Ultimately, this team just has too many management issues. Not all are directly Jones’ fault. You can’t directly blame Butch for Stocstill running onto the field. However, as the head coach, it is ultimately his responsibility. Right now there are just too many substitution, timeout, and overall game management issues, and those must be fixed by Jones. You remove any one of the mistakes I listed and the Vols have a very good chance to win. But when you add up a multitude of management issues, the team has very little chance. Jones has to improve as a game day decision maker and have the team better prepared for any possible situation.
I’m not calling for Jones’ head. He is a great recruiter and does an awesome job with the program on non-gamedays. But through three years, his glaring weakness has been game management. Something has to improve, or he will struggle to win the close games.
This concludes part two of this post. If you’ve not already, please go take a look at part one (link here), which takes a closer look at DeBord and the offensive playcalling.