Turnovers. Anathema to college football. A temporary indiscretion that holds the power to undo untold amounts of hard work. In an instant, they can ruin your play, your day, or even your season.
Tennessee had four of them yesterday against the Kentucky Wildcats, and they all came in such rapid succession that it sucked the wind out of the sails for the rest of the game.
The Vols’ offense punted on its first series after a 32-yard drive and then recovered a Kentucky fumble at the Wildcats’ 45-yard line. Tennessee then drove to the 26, but fumbled when the running back bumped into quarterback Jarrett Guarantano’s arm as he was beginning his throwing motion. Kentucky recovered.
No harm done. Yet. The defense forced a punt after Kentucky went only 9 yards, and although the punt flipped the field, the Vols got the ball back.
And then came the harm. With fury and malice.
Guarantano threw a deep out route to the opposite side of the field, and defensive back Kelvin Joseph jumped the route, intercepted the ball, and ran it back 41 yards for a touchdown.
On the Vols’ next series, Guarantano led the team from its own 25-yard line to the Kentucky 28, but then threw another interception, this one to Jamin Davis, who ran it back 85 yards for another touchdown.
Jeremy Pruitt sat Guarantano and gave the reins to J.T. Shrout for the next series. The offense ran one play for 3 yards, had a personal foul penalty on the next, and then Shrout threw an interception. Seven plays later, Kentucky converted that gift into a field goal.
At that point, Kentucky had only 56 total yards, but led 17-0. The drive chart looked like this:
That’s not how drive charts are supposed to look.
Going back to the second half against Georgia last week, Tennessee has had two fumbles, two interceptions, a fumble recovered for a touchdown, two interceptions returned for touchdowns, and 21 instant points given up by the offense in only four quarters of football.
Whatever superlative you want to use to describe that, it fits. You just can’t win that way. It’s how an otherwise evenly-matched game becomes a blowout in the wrong direction.
Tennessee and Kentucky were within seven total yards of each other yesterday. They were within five passing yards and 12 rushing yards of each other. They had an equal number of first downs. And Kentucky won 34-7 because Tennessee had four turnovers.
Just how bad does it hurt?
The Vols didn’t just go on a turnover binge, they took out a credit line and went to 5th Avenue. Football Study Hall estimates that each turnover is generally worth about 5 points on the scoreboard. Sometimes they are worth less, sometimes more, as the continuum runs from a mere lost opportunity all the way to a lost opportunity plus 7 points for the other team on the same play. Interceptions and fumbles recovered and ran back for touchdowns are the most outlandish purchases, and the Vols’ have been going deep into debt the last four quarters.
What in the world has happened?
That, of course, is the Big Question. Countless fingers are currently aimed directly at Guarantano, and he’s certainly a person of interest in the lineup. Many are also pointing at that nearly-perfect-from-a-recruiting-stars-standpoint offensive line.
We should also give proper credit to the opposing defenses. Georgia’s defense is one that could be historically elite by the end of the season.
But what about Kentucky’s? If you’re like me, you probably attributed the Wildcats’ six interceptions against Mississippi State last week to some combination of luck and a sputtering Mike Leach Air Raid. However, Kentucky is currently second in the nation in passes intercepted and tied for first in interceptions returned for touchdowns.
It’s possible that that result has more to do with Kentucky’s opponents than it does with Kentucky — Arkansas is first in interceptions and tied with Kentucky for first in interceptions returned for touchdowns, and both Arkansas and Kentucky have played Mississippi State — but then again, maybe the Wildcats are just ballhawks.
Whatever the case, giving the ball to the other team has to stop. Right now.
Shockingly, we didn’t win the gold
Oddly enough, it wasn’t just Tennessee that had problems with turnovers or pick sixes yesterday. At one point during the day, I heard an SEC announcer say that there had been six pick sixes on the day. Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral threw six interceptions against Arkansas, including two pick sixes. (Also odd: He was never replaced despite Ole Miss having a capable second-stringer.)
I don’t know whether there ended up being more than six pick sixes yesterday, but even six is a lot. And Tennessee had two of them. On back-to-back possessions. Sandwiched by a fumble and another interception. On the heels of a flurry of turnovers in the prior game that also included a fumble returned for a touchdown.
Turnovers may be epidemic, but the Vols are sicker than most with the possible exception of Ole Miss.
There were other problems as well
Turnovers played the lead in yesterday’s tragedy, but there were several other villains at work in supporting roles as well. While Kentucky had only one ten-yard penalty, the Vols had six for 63 yards.
Field position was also a problem. Here are the starting positions for Tennessee:
- TN 31
- KY 45
- TN 19
- TN 25
- TN 25
- TN 23
- TN 21
- TN 16
- TN 25
- TN 28
Meanwhile, here are the starting positions for Kentucky:
- KY 25
- KY 20
- KY 27 (after fumble)
- (Pick six)
- (Pick six)
- TN 37 (after interception)
- KY 25
- KY 36
- KY 24
- TN 40
- KY 46
- KY 10
Tennessee’s best starting field position was barely over midfield, and it happened only once. Everything else was basically 75 yards from the end zone.
On the other side, Kentucky had two possessions with a starting field position of zero (because its defense scored), two more on Tennesee’s side of the field, and another almost to midfield. Much of that advantage was a direct result of the turnovers, of course, but the Wildcats also had a significant advantage in the punting game, as Max Duffy had a solid average of 46.7 yards per punt while Paxton Brooks averaged only 37.8 on five punts. That’s basically another 40-50 yard advantage in the punting game.
Progress is not a straight line
If there is a silver lining to yesterday and the second half of the Georgia game, it’s this: As Will reminded us after the Georgia game, progress is not a straight line. I don’t know about you, but I fell prey to believing otherwise. I let myself think that because the Vols took care of business against the second tier of the SEC East last year, we were past that nonsense. I focused only on the next step, which was to start knocking off Georgia, Florida, and Alabama every once in a while.
But we can’t just pass a milestone and cross it off the list. This is a ongoing race, not a checklist, and you can’t just chase after your target without also watching your back.
The upside of progress not being a straight line is that sometimes surprising jumps in progress can follow directly on the heels of regression. We saw that play out in 2019. Let’s see what happens in the remainder of 2020.