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VOL. 7 | NO. 48 | Saturday, November 22, 2014

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Dave Link

Just When We Started to Feel Good About UT Football

DAVE LINK | The Ledger

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KNOXVILLE – All seemed so right for the University of Tennessee’s football team for 36 hours or so after last Saturday’s 50-16 victory over Kentucky at Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson (45), a senior All-America candidate, celebrates with teammates following Saturday’s win against Kentucky. Hours later, he and teammate Michael Williams were allegedly involved in a rape and sexual assault at an off-campus party. Both have been suspended from the team.

(Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

UT (5-5, 2-4 SEC) won its second straight conference game and moved within one victory of gaining bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010.

The Vols had so much momentum they opened the week as 3-point favorites to beat No. 19-ranked Missouri (8-2, 5-1) on Saturday night (7:30 EST, ESPN) at Neyland Stadium.

Then the news broke Monday morning.

Two UT football players were suspects in a rape and sexual assault case that allegedly occurred late Saturday night/Sunday morning at a South Knoxville apartment complex.

WBIR first reported UT preseason All-American linebacker A.J. Johnson was one of the two suspects named in the case. Later, backup cornerback Michael Williams was reported as the other suspect.

Suddenly, the Vols’ resounding victory over Kentucky wasn’t the hot topic. Nor was the Missouri game, or bowl eligibility.

It was an alleged rape and sexual assault case – perhaps involving UT’s best player, a face of the team, a team leader.

UT coach Butch Jones began his Monday game-week press conference with a statement about the investigation and ended on the same subject, although never mentioning names of the two players.

“Right now we are in the process of gathering all the information,” Jones said. “Once we have that appropriate information, we will act in a very decisive manner, which we have proven over time to do here at the University of Tennessee.”

And they did.

Johnson and Williams were suspended from the team later Monday for the allegations involving the rape and sexual assault of the two 19-year-old students.

It was another punch in the gut to the UT fan base, which was already braced for the NCAA’s arrival this week to talk with Vols basketball coach Donnie Tyndall about potential violations while he was at Southern Mississippi.

Now a rape/sexual assault investigation was the lead story, presenting a major distraction for the Vols while preparing for Missouri, their biggest challenge of November.

How will Jones deal with the distraction?

“Every situation that occurs, just like in life, I treat it as a teaching opportunity, a teaching moment, and we spend an inordinate amount of time in that, in our Vol for Life Program, our Character Education program, all that, so we’ll discuss it, but it’d be business as usual,” Jones says.

“You know, I’m not into speculation, but we talk about instances all the time, and it will just be another point of contention, another point of emphasis, which it is all the time in our football program.

“But we have a lot on the line. We’re representing the State of Tennessee, Vol Nation, the city of Knoxville, our student body, our fan base, our boosters, our alumni, and we have a lot of positive momentum and energy going right now, and we can’t let that derail us.”

Nope, the Vols need all their focus on Missouri, which is coming off a 34-27 victory at Texas A&M last Saturday.

The Tigers lead the SEC East and have the championship game in their sights. After playing UT, the Tigers end the season Nov. 29 at home against Arkansas (5-5, 1-5 SEC).

Missouri has been to bowl games nine of the past 11 years under head coach Gary Pinkel, who is in his 14th season. The Tigers have a nine-game, road-winning streak over two seasons and can set a school record with a 10th in Knoxville.

“Missouri presents so many challenges for you, and there’s a reason why they’ve had sustained success,” Jones says. “It’s one thing to be successful for a year or two, but sustained success is critical, and when you look at what Coach Pinkel has been able to do, they have been able to sustain success, no matter what conference they’ve been in.

“I remember him back from our days back in the (Mid-American Conference) at Toledo, and their teams always played with a hard edge, and they’re very physical.”

UT still has a Nov. 29 game at Vanderbilt in which to gain bowl eligibility, even if it loses to Missouri.

But the Vols can take so much more momentum into a bowl with two more wins. It would mean a four-game winning streak, and a .500-plus season.

Jones downplays the difference between 7-5 and 6-6 records in a rebuilding year, despite the glaring difference.

“I don’t look at it that way,” he explains. “If you remember, our No. 1 goal was to be the best football team that we could possibly be, and the wins would take care of themselves. We have made monumental strides in the culture, in the mentality.

“Our players have done everything in their preparation to put themselves in position to be successful on game days. So we’ve come a long way. We still have a long ways to go, but we see progress, so again, it’s just continuing to become better and better.”

That was a bit more difficult with a cloud over the program during the week.

Key matchups

Tigers’ Run vs. UT’s front 7: Missouri rolled up 587 yards last Saturday against Texas A&M, including 335 on the ground (6.8-yard average).

Junior Russell Hansbrough (5-9, 190) rushed for a career-high 199 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 9.9 yards per carry. He has 790 rushing yards this season.

“Boy, he’s a dynamic running back in terms of he can make you miss at the second level, but also he runs behind his pads,” Jones says. “He’s a physical style running back. He gets the hard yards, the yards after initial contact. He runs hard, he runs north and south, and he’s proven durability over time.

“He kept fighting and fighting and making plays and impacting the game (against Texas A&M). It’s hard to bring him down on one tackle. Again, we have to swarm to the football and get eleven hats on the football, especially in tackling him.”

Senior Marcus Murphy (5-9, 190), the starting tailback, added 88 rushing yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry against A&M and has 607 rushing yards this year.

UT is 10th in the SEC in rushing defense, giving up 164.2 yards per game.

“Their running backs complement each other,” Jones adds. “Each of their running backs has a different particular skill set, and they do a great job of playing off those skill sets.”

Dobbs vs. Tigers’ ‘D’: UT quarterback Joshua Dobbs just keeps getting better. His passing efficiency reached a career-high against Kentucky: 19 completions in 27 attempts for 297 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.

Nine Vols caught passes against the Wildcats.

Yet Dobbs faces the best defense he’s seen since taking over two series into the Oct. 25 game against Alabama.

Missouri is fourth in the SEC and 16th nationally in scoring defense (20.1 ppg), and sixth in the SEC and 22nd nationally in total defense (340.6 yards allowed per game).

“They have the ability to dominate a football game (defensively),” Jones says. “(The) best tandem of defensive ends we’ve faced in Shane Ray, who some people think will be the first overall pick in the NFL Draft, and Markus Golden as well. When you look at the formula for truly winning in this conference, (they have) all juniors and seniors on the defensive side of the ball, and really on their football team.”

Missouri is tied for sixth nationally with 29 sacks. Ray, a 6-3, 245-pound junior, has 13 sacks, which leads the SEC and is tied for fourth nationally. Golden (6-3, 260 senior) has 6.5 sacks.

Murphy vs. UT Special Teams: Murphy is a serious threat as a punt/kickoff returner.

He’s averaging 32.9 yards on 11 kickoff returns with two for touchdowns – a 100-yarder against South Dakota State and a 96-yarder against Florida.

He also had an 82-yard punt return for touchdown in the 42-13 victory over Florida on Oct. 18 in Gainesville, and is averaging 13 yards on 21 punt returns this year.

“Return game (is) 12th in the country,” Jones says. “Marcus Murphy is a very, very dynamic performer.”

Notable notes

Randolph Sits, T.K. Starts: Starting strong safety Brian Randolph will serve a half-game suspension for the first half of the Missouri game for targeting Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles on a hit in the third quarter.

Jones said there is no appeal for the suspension.

“A couple of years ago there was an appeals process,” Jones explains. “It’s a point of emphasis (now). It’s unfortunate. Brian wasn’t being malicious. He was playing with great effort running to the football, quarterback slides, he had already left his feet so he was actually going low. We teach them in the quarterback slides, and he hits him above the shoulder, but you know, it is the rule.”

Freshman Todd Kelly Jr., of Knoxville will start for Randolph. Kelly, who has played in all 10 games and started two, entered when Randolph was flagged.

“I think (Kelly) did some good things (against Kentucky),” Jones points out. “He was forced into a challenging situation. T.K. prepares every week as though he is the starter. He’s very cerebral so I thought he did really good things.”

No Spoilers’ Role: Jones says the Vols aren’t concerned about playing spoilers in Missouri’s bid to win the SEC East.

He’s more about where UT is headed.

“We’re here to win and develop our football team,” Jones adds. “I don’t think of anything else but putting our players in positions to succeed on game day with our preparation.

“And really, as a coach, the most stressful days of your job are throughout the course of the week, making sure your team is fully prepared, they’ve seen every look, they’re prepared mentally, they’re prepared physically.

“So really, from Sunday all the way to Thursday, I’m locked in four walls in the dark watching video and being with our football team and trying to prepare our mindset, our style of play, all that, just like the other coaches, so we don’t even think about any other teams but our opponent and Tennessee.”

Hurd’s Flu Day: UT true freshman Jalen Hurd played through a flu bug and rushed for 118 yards on 24 carries against Kentucky for his third 100-yard rushing game of the season.

It’s the most 100-yard games for a UT freshman since Jamal Lewis had seven in 1997.

“Jalen was fighting the flu bug a little bit on Saturday morning, and his performance, he continues to get better and better,” Jones said.

Crowder Status: Starting center Mack Crowder left in the third quarter against Kentucky with a high ankle sprain and knee sprain and was replaced by sophomore Dylan Wiesman.

“I thought Dylan did some very, very good things (against Kentucky),” Jones says. “He’s been another one of those individuals that benefitted from the bye week (before Kentucky) or the work week of gaining a lot of repetitions at center, so he was ready to go.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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