Joshua Dobbs' improvement as passer key to Vols' big wins
There are a lot of things you can say about the Tennessee Volunteers’ season through five weeks, but boring isn’t one of them. A close win over Appalachian State and comeback wins over Virginia Tech, Florida and Georgia have left Tennessee fans with their nerves frayed, but their hopes of a trip to the College Football Playoff intact. While their early-game struggles have been obvious, a real stand out in the past two weeks has been quarterback Joshua Dobbs’ improvement as a passer, particularly in the second half of both comebacks. So now, with Tennessee ready to face their toughest opponent this year so far, it’s important that Dobbs continues to impress as a passer.
In the close wins against Appalachian State and Virginia Tech, Dobbs’ passing game was not where it needed to be. Against Appalachian State he really struggled under pressure, completing none of the five passes he attempted when pressure got to him. He also struggled throwing the ball downfield, with just one completion travelling 20 yards or more in air, and just four beyond 10 yards. Against Virginia Tech it was much of the same, completing just three of the seven passes he attempted while under pressure, and completed just two passes travelling 10 yards or further downfield. He just wasn’t able to get it done as a passer, but thankfully, that’s where his legs came in.
Dual threat pay dividends
Dobbs wasn’t able to get much going as a runner against Appalachian State, and ultimately it became a game that Tennessee just had to survive. Against Virginia Tech however, he was able to make a much bigger impact. Rushing for 120 yards on 11 carries, and forcing four missed tackles on those 11 carries. Most of this didn’t come on passing plays either, with just one quarterback scramble for three yards, with the other 117 yards coming on designed runs. Particularly impressive off the edges, he rushed for 59 yards off left end, and another 44 off right end.
Bouncing back as a passer
He followed up the game against Virginia Tech with another big performance on the ground against Ohio, but concerns were definitely rising with the Tennessee offense. Fellow PFF analyst Michael Mountford remarked to me ahead of the game between Tennessee and Florida that if Florida’s defense could slow down the Tennessee rushing attack, Tennessee were probably going to lose that game. Through the first half, he was absolutely right. However, with Tennessee facing an early season conference loss, Dobbs turned it around with a sensational second half to bring them back from the brink and win the game. Much improved throwing the ball downfield, Dobbs hit on five of the seven passes of 20 yards or more he attempted, including three touchdowns.
Against Georgia he was faced with a similar situation, with just 44 yards as a runner, and the running game as a whole struggling. Again though, he was able to make plays downfield with his arm. He attempted just three passes travelling 20 yards or further downfield. He completed two of those though, including the long Hail Mary at the end to win the game. He also had success in the 10-19 yard range, going completing four of the seven passes he attempted. Simply put, over the past two games when Tennessee needed Dobbs to step up and make some big plays with his arm to turn games around, he has managed to do just that. That’s a big deal, because Tennessee are about to have two of their toughest tests in the SEC this year.
The road to come
This week, Tennessee go on the road against Texas A&M and then, one week later, they welcome defending national champions Alabama. Two huge games against top 10 opponents, and games where they probably won’t have the luxury of being able to give away an early two-touchdown advantage only to mount a comeback. Texas A&M will hope to have Myles Garrett back in the lineup, as he’s registered 26 total hurries on just 142 pass rushing snaps so far this season. Meanwhile Alabama has, among others, the trio of Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson and Jonathan Allen. If Tennessee wants to win the SEC and go on to compete for a national championship, these are the games they need to win. These are the toughest challenges that they will face all year through the regular season, but with a much-improved passing game from Dobbs, they have what it takes to keep rolling.