OL, Dobbs building confidence
There were 383 total yards, 20 points, just two sacks allowed and, maybe most importantly, a ton of confidence gained.
Tennessee, an offense that hadn't scored a touchdown in back-to-back Southeastern Conference losses, ran for a season-high 181 yards, threw for 202 and two touchdowns and did all of the above against Alabama, the nation's fifth-best defense, one that entered Neyland Stadium giving up just 262 yards per game.
The Vols were down a starting quarterback. Down a starting tackle and starting guard on the offensive line, too.
But the offensive rhythm, by far Tennessee's best since putting up 401 yards and 32 points in the Sept. 27 loss at Georgia, was impossible to miss, starting with backup-turned-offensive spark Josh Dobbs at quarterback taking pressure off the Vols' embattled offensive line.
Dobbs ran a team-high 19 times for a team-high 75 yards. He led Tennessee's offense to 17-unasnswered points, cutting what was a 27-0 lead to as little as 10, at 27-17. In all that, he was sacked once.
"Obviously, some of the things that we did with Josh alleviated some of the stress and pressure of the offensive line just because of the dual threat and some different gap schemes," Butch Jones said Monday. "But those have always been in our offense so I think it is a combination of the scheme, being about to run the quarterback a little bit ... So I think it is a combination of a lot of little things."
Center Mack Crowder and right tackle Jacob Gilliam echoed the sentiment Tuesday. The overhaul in rhythm and more stable protection was more a change in approach than personnel or scheme.
"It was just our mindset, really," Crowder said. "Going into the game, we wanted to finish our blocks off. I had said earlier in the year that it comes down to just a pride thing.
"I feel like everybody took it amongst themselves to step up and play the roles that they were supposed to be playing that game."
The role Dobbs played against Alabama was counterweight, balancing an offense that had been terribly imbalanced all season.
The difference between rushing and passing yards (21 yards) was by far the lowest of the year. The only other outing close to that number was a 79-yard difference against Arkansas State (247 passing, 168 rushing).
Offensive line coach Don Mahoney said after practice Wednesday that an athletic quarterback can help "help make some wrongs go right for the line."
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian labeled it as more "leeway" that comes with extra effort.
"It adds a little bit of uncertainty to their part (on the offensive line), because they don't know where he might end up," Bajakian said. "They have to strain a litte bit more and a little bit longer.
"But (Dobbs) does give them a little bit of leeway by extending plays and bailing out."
Tennessee's offensive line, especially at the tackles, felt the difference across the line of scrimmage created by the dual threat.
"You have to set a little differently," Gilliam said, "just knowing that the defensive ends are going to rush differently because the quarterback is a threat now to run.
"You set differently on them because of the way the rush happens. They're more contain than jetting up field, trying to get to the pocket."
In short, Alabama's defensive front wasn't able to pin its ears back and come after the passer. But Jones said Monday, even with Dobbs running 19 times against Alabama, he wouldn't give Tennessee's running quarterbacks a leg up on injured Justin Worley in a quarterback competition he claims is wide open.
"I still think you need to throw the football in order to win football games," he said. "You have to have great balance on offense. You can't be one dimensional. It's easy for defenses to take one-dimensional football teams away.
"We've prided ourselves over the years of being diversified in everything we do."
Saturday was only the second time the Vols had more rush attempts than passes (43 rushes; 36 passes). Tennessee ran 45 times against Arkansas State and had 38 pass attempts.
With Dobbs balancing the load on the ground, Alabama's front seven only got to Tennessee quarterbacks twice for sacks, the lowest total since Arkansas State and Utah State.
Before the change at quarterback, the Vols front five had given up a combined 26 sacks in five games, from Oklahoma to Ole Miss, and was the center of Tennessee's struggles.
"Dobbs is just fast," Crowder said. "He's more liable to keep the ball, (Nate) Peterman the same. Worley's more of a pocket passer. Other than that, the base offense is the same, their reads are the same on pretty much every play."
What wasn't the same was the success of that base offense. And success on an offensive line that was in desperate need of some.
"Was it a perfect game? No," Jones said Wednesday. "We've got a long ways to go. But I thought Josh added a whole other element to it.
"I thought we just had some players step up and make plays."