Nobody said victories had to be pretty.
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones would be the first one to tell you that on Saturday afternoon.
Pretty left the building when Tennessee’s offense stalled in the second half. Or when holder Tyler Drummer knocked a 52-yard Michael Palardy field goal attempt with his off-ball hand.
Pretty was long gone when South Alabama chipped at a 31-7 deficit and turned a cake walk ballgame into a one-score nail biter.
But getting the win is all that matters.
Jones will gladly take ugly. For now.
“I’ve been doing this 20-plus years and every win is a good win,” Jones said. “We needed to get to victory No. 3. We got to victory No. 3.”
Jones took a “Mr. Brightside” approach to his post-game press conference. A grin cracked through his sunburnt stare. He was focused on the positives. He certainly found enough of them.
Jones gushed about running back Rajion Neal, calling it the most complete game of the senior’s career. He praised the pass rush and complimented Palardy.
It wasn’t a clean game. Jones knows that. But in his eyes, a win like this is nothing more than a teaching opportunity.
“When you’re learning to teach individuals how to win, everything is a teaching opportunity,” Jones said. “We had anything and every go wrong… and yet we found a way at the end of the game to win the game. We’re going to go back to work tomorrow and get better.”
South Alabama quarterback Ross Metheny rushed for 37 yards. Vols linebacker Brent Brewer said the defense spied Metheny “three to four times.”
Dan McCullers said he played with his “best motor” all season.
Worley said his second interception of the game was because of “miscommunication” between himself and Alton Howard.
Said Worley: “It was good to run the ball a little bit.”
Forget the freshman
Jones said post-game that he never considered playing true freshmen Riley Ferguson or Joshua Dobbs.
When asked if either rookie gunslinger was an option, Jones responded with a stern “no.”
“When they’re ready to play, they’ll be ready to play,” Jones said. “There’s a lot of consideration that goes into putting the freshmen in.”
The debate this week was which newcomer would earn the back up job. It looked to be Ferguson by all indications.
Ferguson took snaps with backup center Mack Crowder and handed off to Marlin Lane during pre-game warm-ups. Dobbs worked with Zach Fulton and gave to Tom Smith.
Marlin Lane suffered an undisclosed leg injury in the second half on Saturday.
Jones described it as a “lower leg” injury and said his status would not be clear until the middle of the week.
Lane rushed for 66 yards on five attempts. His average of 13.2-yards per carry was bolstered by a 54-yard rush in the first quarter, but Lane was effective nonetheless.
Tom Smith received three carries in Lane’s absence, and turned his rare opportunity into 27 yards.
Not wavering on Worley
Butch Jones wasn’t about to call Justin Worley’s performance against South Alabama excellent. But he wouldn’t call it a failure, either.
Jones defended Worley after the junior’s three interception performance that nearly gifted the Jaguars a win.
“I thought he did some good things moving forward. He made some big throws,” Jones said. “I’m proud of Justin.”
Worley’s mistakes were obvious. He threw more interceptions than touchdowns. On the season, Worley has tallied eight touchdowns and six picks.
In the second half, Worley froze. His game stalled, as did Tennessee’s offense.
Worley completed just five passes for 54 yards after halftime. But Jones would argue that it’s not all the quarterback’s fault.
“He wasn't helped out with the guys on the perimeter as well and it's a team game. I thought he did some good things moving forward,” Jones said. “He made some big throws when we needed them on third and long at the end of the game. Again, it's just the overall management.
“They brought a lot of pressure and they were trying to impact the quarterback. He needs to learn just one more split second because we had crossing routes, but I'm proud of Justin. Playing quarterback at the University of Tennessee, there's a lot that comes with that and he's learning as we go. I thought he showed some resiliency today."
North not getting it
Tennessee continues waiting on wideout Marquez North to have a more significant impact.
The Vols will need to be patient. The wait will continue.
“Marquez is still going through the nuances of being a college wide receiver,” Jones said. “He was basically a high school running back last year so he's learning.”
North may still be working through the learning curve, but that doesn’t mean Jones will let the freshman take his time getting used to big time football.
The Vols need North’s 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame on the same page with Worley. It hasn’t happened thus far.
“Wide outs paint pictures for the quarterback and everything in the throw game is rhythm, spacing and timing,” Jones said. “Each play has a life of its own so sometimes it may be Justin, sometimes it's Marquez but we have to get that fixed and fixed in a hurry.”
Butch Jones, per university
Justin Worley, per university