UT’s Jones proves to be gambler in play calling
KNOXVILLE — LSU head coach Les Miles and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier have a made a name for themselves as being gamblers on the sidelines, going for it on fourth down deep in their own territory. After Tennessee’s game on Saturday, it appears another name might have joined the list.
The Volunteers faced three different fourth-and-one situations in their game against Georgia on Saturday. Each time coach Butch Jones decided to go for it and each time the risk paid off. While the Bulldogs ultimately won the game 34-31 in overtime, the fact that Jones had the confidence in his team to roll the dice speaks volumes about the first-year UT coach.
“We have the best offensive line in the SEC, so we were going to do it,” Jones said of his decisions to go for it on fourth down.
“These are plays that the coaching staff designed and our players executed it. When you execute it in practice, you have confidence to call it in the game. There was never any doubt that we were going to do that.”
How big the gutsy calls were can only be appreciated in view of the game situation at the time. The Vols had blocked a punt and Devaun Swafford ran it in for a touchdown with 1:25 remaining in the third quarter to tie the game at 17. Georgia answered with a touchdown of their own on a drive that covered 75 yards on only four plays to retake the lead on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Tennessee was facing a fourth-and- sixth until they caught a break when the Bulldogs were flagged for a defensive delay of game. The penalty took what would have been a sure punt for the Vols to a fourth-and-short, and the players did not let Jones or the coaching staff think twice about going for it, even at their own 34.
“The players looked to the coaches, and we believe in them first and foremost. We believe in them, we believe in our football team. The kids executed and did a great job,” Jones said.
And execute was exactly what they did, as Tennessee dialed up a fantastic play call. Justin Worley pitched the ball to Rajion Neal, who sprinted 43 yards to the Georgia 23. The big fourth down call resulted in a Tennessee touchdown five plays later to knot the score at 24.
After forcing a Georgia punt, Tennessee once again faced the fourth-and-one situation, this time even deeper at their own 29. Neal busted through the line for the first down to keep the ball moving.
The third and final fourth-and-one call was the only one that was on Georgia’s side of the field but was a big one nonetheless. Standing at the 35, Worley completed a 28-yard pass to A.J. Branisel, who got to the UGA 7. For the third time, the gamble was rewarded with a score, as Neal gave the Vols’ their first lead of the game two plays later.
Jones said the ability to call plays like the three he did on fourth-and-one was not something that comes automatically on Saturdays but instead is decided in practice throughout the week.
“We always talk to our players about giving us confidence in practice to call these plays in a game. I can’t tell you the number of times we go to Thursday’s practice and if we don’t execute the plays, we throw them out. It’s all about execution and everyone wants to talk about plays, but at the end of the day, it’s all about executing those plays,” Jones said.
Jones, who said there is a bond with this current batch of Volunteers that he has never experienced before, said when the team gets near the goal line, there is never a doubt of what the ultimate goal is.
“Our kids did a great job in those critical situations of really making some opportunities for us. Once we get down there (in the red zone), it’s not about kicking field goals, it’s about scoring touchdowns,” Jones said.
- By Marlin Curnutt, Tribune Correspondent