With quarterback Tyler Bray and a trio of players -- receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson and tight end Mychal Rivera -- who have made splashes as NFL rookies, Tennessee piled up 66 plays of 20 or more yards a year ago. Through 11 games this season, the Vols have just 40 such big plays, which is tied for 97th nationally. Against Vanderbilt they had just one play of 20-plus yards -- a pass on the final desperation drive following the Commodores' winning touchdown -- and have recorded just 13 such gains in the last four games after registering 27 in the season's first seven games.
KNOXVILLE — As their season slid off the tracks in the last month, the Tennessee Volunteers have seen their offense fall into a tailspin of mistakes, missed opportunities and ineffectiveness.
It finally cost them a win, too.
After scoring 23 or more points during a three-game stretch against South Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, Tennessee scored 10 points or less three times and managed just three offensive touchdowns in its past four games.
A defense that was gashed for 131 points and 987 rushing yards by Alabama, Missouri and Auburn played well enough to win against Vanderbilt, but the Vols' dismal night offensively limited their chance of winning and keeping alive their hopes of a first bowl bid in three seasons.
"It's very frustrating," right tackle Ja'Wuan James said Monday, "but our defense, I feel like, has had our back and played well and gave us opportunities, but we've got to have their back as well.
"Three touchdowns is not acceptable, especially in this league, but we've just got to go out here and practice, practice, practice and go out here and try to score some points versus Kentucky.
"I really don't know [why]. We've been playing against some good competition. We've been out there making too many mistakes against good competition. You can't make that many mistakes when you're playing teams like this, so we've just got to go out there and play a complete game as an offense and limit the [missed assignments] and limit the technique issues."
Heading into the season finale at Kentucky on Saturday night, Tennessee ranks 11th in the SEC in points per game (23.5) and 104th nationally in total offense (347.5 yards), and its 237-yard game against the Commodores was the second-lowest output of the season. Only the 220-yard performance against Florida in September was lower.
The biggest issue has been inefficient play in the red zone, though Tennessee has driven inside the opponent's 20-yard line just nine times in the past four games. The Vols have scored just three touchdowns and kicked three field goals on those nine possessions. Against Vanderbilt, Tennessee scored zero points after twice driving inside the Commodores' 15.
"I think it's not one area. I think it's a combination of a lot of areas," first-year coach Butch Jones said. "We have to score touchdowns in the red zone. I think it's critical mistakes at critical points of the game, whether it's illegal procedure, a dropped pass, a missed read, a negative-yardage football play.
"All those things start a snowball effect, so I think it's been a combination of a lot of little things, and as we know, the little things add up to the big things."
The Vols have relied on freshman quarterback Josh Dobbs, who was fourth in the pecking order at the position heading into the season, for the last 14 quarters, dating back to the second half of the Alabama game.
After a solid first start at Missouri, where he was 26-of-42 passing for 240 yards, Dobbs completed 27 of his 44 passes for only 181 yards. The passing game was abysmal against Vanderbilt, as the Vols had to abandon throwing the ball after Dobbs threw two early interceptions -- his fourth and fifth of the season -- and Marquez North left the game.
The freshman receiver, who had 23 catches for 362 yards in the last five games entering the Vanderbilt game, left in the first quarter -- and took what Jones called "a big chunk of our offense" with him -- after hurting his ankle. He is questionable for Saturday's game.
Tennessee, which is averaging 16.7 points per SEC game after scoring 26.5 points per league game in 2012, finished with 53 passing yards, the fewest in a game since the Vols threw for 21 yards in a 20-10 win at Vanderbilt in 2008.
"We're not anywhere where we need to be in terms of our style of play or our identity on offense," Jones said.
"It's very difficult to call an offensive game when you start off with a couple of interceptions, the elements, it's cold, it's windy and your best receiver goes out. But that's the way it is. That's football. Next individual in. When you have that depth -- and we'll get to that point -- you're able to overcome those things.
"But right now, we're not able to overcome those circumstances. We'll get to that point. We'll be able to, and it's great teaching lessons to a lot of our younger players, too, of you never know when your time's going to be called, and when your time is called, you better be ready to go."
Told what his coach had said, James immediately agreed.
"We have one more opportunity," he added, "to go out and try to play the way we're able to and play the way the coaches want us to."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...