KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee's offense is looking for answers after scoring just 16 points in its last three games.
The first question, though, is who will be under center when the Volunteers host Middle Tennessee State this week.
Derek Dooley decided last week to give true freshman Justin Worley his first start in Saturday night's 14-3 loss to South Carolina. Two costly interceptions later , UT's second-year coach went back to senior Matt Simms with 10 minutes left in the game. Dooley elected not to go into who would start in his postgame news conference, and he took that stance on his coach's show on Sunday.
"Well, we've got to go watch the film," he said. "Justin did some good things and made some tough decisions. We're going to keep playing Justin, he's a freshman. It's good to have Matt in there to come on on in like he did. I'm really proud of Matt for his attitude. It's tough on a young man when you're the quarterback and you get replaced. It's a real tribute to his character, and we're glad he's with us."
Worley looked like a freshman early in the game, missing his first four throws and overthrowing an open Da'Rick Rogers in the end zone. The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder settled in later, delivered a pair of downfield throws to DeAnthony Arnett and hit Rogers on a would-be touchdown if the sophomore hadn't let the ball go right through his hands.
His two crucial second-half interceptions were both throws into double coverage that ruined turnovers in good field position forced by the defense.
"He's been the third [quarterback], and your makeup and your mindset's always a little different when you're the three," Dooley said. "He's been the two now for three weeks, and he's going to keep working hard and keep improving. We have confidence in him to be a good quarterback."
Where Worley might have struggled the most, though, is with the management of the offense. The Vols burned two first-half timeouts on offense in a 1:20 span and used their third after a first down. Dooley decided to go for a fourth-and-1 at the Gamecocks' 20 in the first quarter, but the new cadence forced the right side of UT's offensive line to jump, forcing a Michael Palardy field-goal attempt that Stephon Gilmore blocked.
Dooley said after the game the Vols tried to simplify the offense administratively for Worley.
"You have to have some checks," he said. "You have to, and he just doesn't have a lot of experience. We were in the Friday walkthrough just trying to hard count. It was a disaster. It takes some time. He has to practice. He'll be OK.
"In the meantime we have to figure out how to win a game. That's the trick. We have to do a better job coaching."
The rest of the Vols' offense has to do a better job as well. UT's defense and special teams helped out with three turnovers in great field position, but the running game managed just 35 yards against the Gamecocks. The Vols' wideouts also have to make plays when the chance is there regardless of who's at quarterback.
"We catch balls from these guys every day," said Arnett, the freshman who had 59 yards on three catches Saturday. "We know how they throw. We can't make excuses. We've been playing with them all summer and all through training camp. We're used to them by now. We really can't make excuses. As a group, we can't do that no more.
"As receivers, we've got to come up big, we have to. We have to make a play for the quarterback, make a play for the team."
UT hasn't score a touchdown in its last 10 quarters and has just 99 yards of second-half offense the past two games. After tying for the national lead in third-down conversions at 62 percent in the first four games, the Vols are converting at less than 24 percent (12-of-51) in the last four games.
"It always gets a little frustrating at times, but that's what we've got coaches for -- to push us on and push us forward," said tight end Mychal Rivera. "That's what we need to do with the rest of the season, to look forward and not look back, to know that we've still got stuff to play for."
The injuries to quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Justin Hunter have had obvious negative effects, but the Vols have to play the hand they've been dealt.
"Every good football team you need two or three dynamic playmakers on offense and defense," Dooley said. "That's what you have to have to be a good team. When you don't have them and nobody is filling that void, it becomes tough. Right now there is not a whole lot of dynamic playmaking going on. We have to find them."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...