Young Volunteers Face Long Odds at Oklahoma

DAVE LINK | The Ledger

Two games into the 2014 season, and it’s time for the University of Tennessee to play some big-boy football.

The Vols (2-0) took care of business at Neyland Stadium in the first two games against Utah State and Arkansas State.

Their challenge gets exponentially greater Saturday night against No. 4-ranked Oklahoma (2-0) in Norman, Okla.

How big of a challenge is it? Some numbers are scary for the unranked Vols.

For instance, Oklahoma is 37-2 at home against non-conference opponents under Bob Stoops, now in his 16th year as the Sooners’ head coach. The Sooners are 72-3 at home against unranked opponents at home under Stoops.

And Oklahoma is 62-2 at home under Stoops when holding opponents to fewer than 20 points, which it did in the first two games against Louisiana Tech (48-16) and Tulsa (52-7). UT has lost 24 consecutive games when scoring fewer than 20 points.

UT coach Butch Jones has seen the numbers.

“I think when you look at the building of a program, you look at Oklahoma,” Jones says. “Coach Stoops has done an unbelievable job. He’s been there for 16 years, 88-5 is the home record. We talk about creating a home-field advantage. I would say that’s a home-field advantage.

“(They’re) 43-10 in their last four years, but when you look at their football team, you see redshirt senior, redshirt senior, junior, redshirt junior. You see a veteran group that they’ve been able to raise through their program, through their culture, through their expectations of what it takes to play in that football program.”

UT fans have to think back a few years to recall such glory days with their football team.

Jones has rejuvenated a starved fan base, and despite a 5-7 season in his first year as the Vols’ coach, has kept the faithful energized through the first two games of 2014.

But even Jones is realistic about the Oklahoma game and UT’s razor-thin margin for error.

“I see a football team that has no deficiencies, and is very deserving of their ranking,” Jones says. “It’s going to be a tremendous challenge going into a hostile environment where all their players know is about winning.

“Over half of our football team will be going on their first road trip, but I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a great challenge for these youngsters, but I think it’s needed in our evolution and our maturity as a football team.”

There could be some growing pains on this trip.

Stoops is not fond of the notion that the SEC is the premier conference in college football, even though it is. He got miffed when Alabama coach Nick Saban called the 2014 Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma “a consolation prize” after the Tide’s earlier loss to Auburn derailed its chances for another national title. Oklahoma won the Sugar Bowl, 45-31.

So Stoops lashed back at Saban with some public comments. And he might see the UT game as another chance to stick it to the SEC.

Jones wouldn’t get drawn into the conversation when asked about Stoops and his aversion to the SEC.

“I don’t look at that at all,” Jones says. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Stoops. I’ve known him. My first year at Cincinnati (2010) we played Oklahoma. It was a great football game (Oklahoma won 31-29). We lost at the end.”

UT can only hope to be in that position Saturday night.

The Vols faced a similar scenario in their third game of the 2013 season. After winning non-conference games against outmanned Austin Peay (45-0) and Western Kentucky (52-20), the Vols traveled to play No. 2-ranked Oregon.

It was over by halftime. The Ducks led 38-7 on their way to a 59-14 victory.

At least one Vol said this team is better prepared for Oklahoma than last year’s was for Oregon.

“We’re a very confident team,” sophomore cornerback Cam Sutton says. “We know what we’re capable of. Like I said, just having a great week of practice will definitely be a determining factor in this game.”

Yet this is OU, and this is Stoops.

Oklahoma’s media notes point out while Stoops was defensive coordinator at Florida under head coach Steve Spurrier, the Gators went 2-0 against Peyton Manning and the Vols.

The notes also show the Sooners were 2-0 in their last SEC home-and-home series with victories over Alabama in 2002 and ’03. (Oklahoma plays at Neyland Stadium in 2015).

This will be a barometer of how far the Vols have come under Jones, and it’s the first of three such games, to be followed by a road trip to Georgia (Sept. 27) and a home game against Florida (Oct. 4).

“Now obviously we’ll find out how we’ve been prepared when we go on the road in Norman,” Jones said. “They have a tremendous home-field advantage. Now we’re playing in front of a different crowd noise, a different venue, (staying at) a different hotel, so everything will be new. But you try to prepare, but you really don’t know until you’re faced with that adversity face to face.”

Key matchups

Vols’ O-Line vs. Oklahoma’s front 7: So far, the Vols’ revamped offensive line has been sufficient, but it hasn’t faced the likes of the Sooners’ front seven.

Oklahoma’s defensive front returned five starters from last year’s team, and returned 80 percent of its tackles for loss and 79 percent of its sacks from 2013.

UT quarterback Justin Worley was sacked four times in the first two games, and Oklahoma has four sacks in its first two games.

The Vols’ rushing game was sub-par against Utah State (110 yards) and slightly better against Arkansas State (168), and the Sooners’ defensive front will bring another level of size and athleticism than the Vols have seen.

“You worry about the overall physicality (of the defensive front), you worry about tipped footballs with their length,” Jones said. “They pose many, many challenges for you.”

Trevor Knight vs. Vols’ defense: Oklahoma’s sophomore quarterback picked apart Alabama’s defense in the 2014 Sugar Bowl to the tune of almost 350 passing yards and four touchdowns in the Sooners’ victory, and he’s at it again through the first two games this year: 55.8 percent completion percentage, 552 yards, three touchdowns, one interception.

UT’s defense has allowed just 334 passing yards in two games (167 yard average), but Knight has a far better supporting cast than Utah State QB Chuckie Keeton and Arkansas State’s Fredi Knighten.

He’s got an experienced, massive offensive line in front of him that includes four fifth-year seniors: tackles Daryl Williams (6-6, 329 pounds) and Tyrus Thompson (6-5, 336), guard Adam Shead (6-4, 339), and tight end Blake Bell (6-6, 259).

“It’s going to be a challenge to limit his success because Trevor does so much for their football team, not only managing the game, he’s making good decisions with the football, but he’s extremely athletic,” Jones says.

“He can make people miss in space, and he can throw the football, and they like to push the football down the field.

“They like to throw perimeter screens, get you running. They have a very, very imposing offensive line.

“I’ve been told they’d be one of the largest lines in the National Football League. They’re big, and they’re well-coached.”

Worley vs. OU linebackers/secondary: Worley has been impressive thus far despite not connecting enough on deep passes. He’s completed 64.5 percent of his passes in two games for 520 yards with five touchdowns and one interception.

Oklahoma’s defense has given up 425 passing yards in two games and intercepted four passes, three against Tulsa. Look for Oklahoma to come after Worley with a variety of blitzes.

Jones says Worley is better prepared for this big game than the ones last season.

“Justin isn’t even close to being the same quarterback he was last year,” Jones said. “He’s poised, he’s confident.

“Is he going to be challenged? Yes. Did he have to go on the road and have to play in some very hostile SEC environments (last year)? Absolutely.

“Every road game is a hostile environment. Also, I think the quarterback is a byproduct of the players around him, and as you all know, we’re much more skilled out on the perimeter at all positions, and that has also helped Justin, as well.”

Notable notes

Talk About Balance: Oklahoma is averaging 222 rushing yards (6.3 yards per carry) and 286 passing yards (7.1 yards per pass) in its first two games.

The Sooners have three running backs with 100-plus yards: Keith Ford (138), Alex Ross (126), and Samaje Perine (110).

“It’s very difficult,” Jones says of defending Oklahoma. “They do a great job of balance, and also within that balance, their scheme presents you problems, because all of a sudden they go from an internal run to a play-action, deep post, to all of a sudden a perimeter screen, and then you couple that with their athletes and their tempo and their size, it’s a great challenge.”

Sterling Play: Junior receiver Sterling Shepard (5-foot-10, 195 pounds) has been the big-play man for the Sooners through two games. He has 12 catches for 228 yards (18.8 yards per catch) and two touchdowns, including eight catches for 177 yards and one TD last week against Tulsa.

In the Sugar Bowl against Alabama, Shepard had seven catches for 63 yards and one touchdown. He wears the same No. 3 jersey number worn by his late father, Derrick, who lettered as a wide receiver at Oklahoma from 1983-86.

“He’s a complete wide out,” Jones says. “He’s not just a deep ball individual. They can throw him a 5-yard hitch, and it turns into a 55-yard touchdown.

“He can do it all. I’ve been very impressed, blocks on the perimeter.”

Butch’s Buddy: Jones was on the staff for one season with Oklahoma offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh while at Central Michigan in 1998. Jones was Central Michigan’s tight ends coach at the time, while Bedenbaugh was a graduate assistant working with the offensive line.

“Bill Bedenbaugh is a very good friend of mine,” Jones says. “I worked with him way back in the day at Central Michigan. I have a lot respect for him and what he does, and just an overall respect for their program. You can see these (Oklahoma) players are the byproduct of being in that football program for a number of years.”

Trooper-Jones Exchange: A photograph by Knoxville News Sentinel photographer Michael Patrick appeared to capture Arkansas State assistant coach Trooper Taylor and Jones in a heated verbal exchange after Saturday’s game, won by the Vols 34-19.

Taylor was assistant head coach at UT under Phillip Fulmer from 2004-07.

Jones said what appeared to be a terse moment with Taylor wasn’t the case at all.

During his weekly press conference on Monday, Jones wasn’t asked about the post-game exchange with Taylor, but after exiting the media room, Jones returned and told a reporter: “You said you were going to ask the Trooper Taylor question, and you didn’t.”

Jones then continued: “Just for the record: Trooper’s a friend. It’s amazing. I looked at him, I said, ‘You guys got a really good football team,’ and everybody blows it out of proportion. He was very complimentary of what’s going on here. It was good to hear from somebody who had coached here before, that we’re getting it back.”

Debuts Continue: Jakob Johnson became the 34th newcomer – and the 22nd true freshman – to make his debut this season for the Vols. Johnson played on special teams in the first quarter against Arkansas State.

The other true freshmen to play this season are: Jalen Hurd, Josh Malone, Todd Kelly Jr., Rashaan Gaulden, Derek Barnett, Emmanuel Moseley, Dillon Bates, Cortez McDowell, Aaron Medley, Evan Berry, Elliott Berry, Colton Jumper, Coleman Thomas, Dewayne Hendrix, Jashon Robertson, Dimarya Mixon, Vic Wharton, D’Andre Payne, Daniel Helm, Michael Sawyers, and Ethan Wolf.

Twelve other newcomers/redshirt freshmen played in the first two games for the Vols: Ryan Jenkins, George Bullock, Von Pearson, Patrick Ashford, Michael Williams, Austin Sanders, Justin Pickett, Chris Weatherd, Owen Williams, Alex Ellis, Matt Giampapa, and Brett Kendrick.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.