September 15, 2012
Dooley faces greatest challenge
The goodwill, the national ranking and the optimism vanished Saturday beneath a picturesque panorama inside Neyland Stadium, where these settings once were as regular embarrassing Britney Spears TV moments.
The goal posts, however, remained intact.
Tennessee had done everything it possibly could prior to kickoff; retired Johnny Majors' number, done everything possible to foment the electric atmosphere that permeated not merely Rocky Top but all of Knoxville and brought in scores of big-time recruits. The Vols even got a "Go Big Orange!" at the conclusion of the pre-game prayer.
Now, Derek Dooley never has faced a greater challenge in his coaching career. A university that has endured far more heartbreak and turmoil than seems fair needs football healthy. So everyone wanted to believe that this Florida hex was over and a return to national relevance --- and rankings --- would extend at least to month's end.
Instead, it was a shell-shocked crowd of orange that peeled out of Neyland Stadium in the waning moments of Tennessee's come-from-ahead, 37-20 setback to the visiting Gators.
"It's disappointing, and those guys are hurting in there because we came in here expecting to win," Dooley said. "And knew it wasn't going to be easy, knew it was going to be tough and had a great game going.
"And we just let it slip away. The sky is not going to fall tomorrow. We're going to have to learn from it. They're a good football team, and we've got to move on. We've got to make sure we don't make those kinds of mistakes again in a game. Because those mistakes, when you're in these, and I said this, we're going to be in a lot of fourth-quarter games. We've got to be able to execute in the fourth. We did it in the first game, and we didn't do it in this game. We won the first game. We lost this one."
Now, everyone will take a wait-and-see approach. Akron is nothing next week; Tennessee's next game that matters unfolds between top-10 ranked Georgia's hedges on Sept. 29.
"Oh, most certainly [they can respond]. We were fully prepared for tonight, and we knew it was going to be a four-quarter battle," junior linebacker Jacques Smith said. "We just came up short. We've just got to go in, dissect the film like Rajion said and go in and make the corrections. We've got a recovery game and we're going to take it out on them and look forward to the next SEC opponent. And I know they'll be looking for us and we're going to take it to them. Because we definitely do have something to prove this year, and we're definitely going to prove it.
This game, this eighth-straight loss and one that will test this team's mettle like nothing in these previous seasons, will be remembered for the plays that almost were. Florida fumbled inside its 5 on its opening possession and was damn-fortunate to recover. The Gators had other miscues, but Tennessee had too many of its own.
Virtually perfect through the first two games, Tyler Bray threw a pair of miserable interceptions and was fortunate on some other tosses. His receivers at times made the spectacular play but failed on routine ones in critical moments.
Derrick Brodus, thrust into the starting kicker role this week, missed an extra point that would have lifted the Vols to an eight-point edge.
"We will dissect the film. We will see where we made our mistakes," said tailback Rajion Neal. "We will come out and practice hard, the coaches will stay on us. We will keep this in the past and move on. I feel that we will bounce back."
Tennessee's defense was atrocious against a Gators' offense that more often has been 3 yards and a paw of swamp-mud. Florida finished with 555 yards, and Sal Sunseri's unit closed with more questions on communication. Against two FBS-level teams, the Vols have surrendered 962 yards' offense.
So Akron is next, and then Georgia. The Vols are 2-1. They have nine more games.
Late in this contest, Dooley caught Bray's final errant toss along the sideline and slammed the football to the turf.
Tennessee's third-year coach made it look so easy. Unfortunately, his challenge probably has never been greater.
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