Josh Heupel has done so much right in a surprisingly successful first season at Tennessee, we haven’t focused much on what’s going wrong.
Thursday’s instant classic of a Music City Bowl doesn’t change everything for Heupel, but it will change that. Scrutiny naturally follows a team that gains 663 offensive yards – 285 on the ground – and somehow loses as Tennessee did 48-45 in overtime to Purdue.
These middle-tier bowls may not have anything at stake, but this one could have fooled you. It felt more important as the afternoon progressed. It became this beautiful disaster of two teams spending four and a half hours simultaneously attacking offensive records and doing enough to both win and lose.
College football has seen better-played games this season, but I’m not sure it has seen a more wildly entertaining game.
Whoever won it in spite of its shortcomings was going to be on the top of the world.
Whoever lost was going to end up grimly re-examining why it fell short.
And so here are Heupel’s Vols.
“There’s some things that we handled really well tonight,” Heupel said. “There’s some things that we didn’t.”
The Vols (7-6) needed every speck of orange filling Nissan Stadium to the brim. Those fans made a difference, but it wasn’t enough. They went home disappointed.
Surely, they’re blaming the officiating for the missed forward-progress call in overtime. They can do that, but it shouldn’t excuse all that Tennessee’s team did to allow this to get away:
The 14 penalties and all the pass interference calls.
The wasted possession to end regulation.
And my goodness, the defensive flubs. The tackling.
In one game, we saw how Heupel is going to make the Vols’ offense delightful to watch and dangerous for the rest of the SEC. We also saw how the Vols could be susceptible in the SEC for years to come as their offense continues to play at a breakneck pace that resulted in 103 offensive snaps Thursday – and can’t close the deal while leaving a tiring, vulnerable defense on the field too long against a good offense.
Don’t let the Big Ten polish fool you. Boilermakers coach Jeff Brohm was winning never-ending shootouts like this at Western Kentucky when Heupel was still an offensive coordinator. For Brohm, a game like this became a waist-high fastball.
Purdue (9-4) gained 627 yards and quarterback Aidan O’Connell threw for 534 yards.
It helped him that Tennessee – hardly a great tackling team anyway – simply forgot that skill for much of the game. Purdue scored passing touchdowns of 75, 70 and 62 yards. The final two of those were in the final 4:58. The 62-yarder was downright embarrassing.
Purdue tight end Payne Durham simply kept running down the sideline when four different Tennessee defenders – for some reason – simply stopped on the play. Jaylen McCollough and Kamal Hadden just stood there. Jeremy Banks eased up. And Aaron Beasley somehow let Durham go without shoving him out of bounds. If you haven’t seen the video, don’t worry. You will. Over and over for years as a famous example of lethargic defense.
This result, as much as it stings now, won’t throw Heupel too far off track. It may not even curb the enthusiasm he was building into next season.
Hendon Hooker and Cedric Tillman – who connected on touchdowns of 41 and 61 yards in the first nine minutes of Thursday’s game – are both returning. No matter the holes elsewhere on the roster, that alone will be enough to spawn preseason hype for 2022 about Tennessee that … well … it’ll look a lot like preseason hype we’ve seen before this past decade about Tennessee.
For a long time, next year has been much more attractive for the Vols than last year. The Vols have made a long-running habit out of encouraging hope by closing strong with middle-tier bowl wins and then failing to use that as a springboard to anything better than more middle-tier bowls.
Remember Iowa in 2014? Or Northwestern in 2015, after which Butch Jones said to end his third season at UT, “We’re getting back to where this football program deserves to be.”
There was Nebraska in 2016, and don’t forget Jeremy Pruitt’s second season ended with a victory over a good Indiana team. Hopes were pretty high then, too. “We’re excited about the future of our program,” Pruitt said afterward. His Vols were 8-5, one game better than they are right now.
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