South Alabama vs. Tennessee: Justin Worley's Struggles Keep QB Controversy Alive

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 29, 2013

Sep 28, 2013; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers head coach Butch Jones during the second half against the South Alabama Jaguars at Neyland Stadium. Tennessee won 31 to 24. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee's offense was supposed to build off last week's second half. Justin Worley was supposed to take the starting quarterback job he regained and run with it against South Alabama.

Neither happened.

The Vols' ulcer-inducing 31-24 survival against the Jaguars on Saturday proved once again that nothing is going to come easily during this rebuilding season. 

After building a 24-point cushion over the Jaguars with the help of a touchdown to open the second half, Worley and Tennessee essentially packed it in for the afternoon. It took a Brian Randolph interception in the end zone in the waning minutes to hold off a monumental collapse. 

Following a win that felt like a loss, the Vols were left relieved they won and with the same old questions at quarterbackDespite Worley's ineffectiveness, the ever-optimistic Butch Jones still defended his signal-caller, according to a tweet from the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown.

Butch on Worley: 'Playing quarterback at the University of Tennessee, there's a lot that comes with that, and he's learning as we go.'

— Patrick Brown (@patrickbrownTFP) September 28, 2013

The junior from Rock Hill, S.C., continues to show he's just keeping the seat warm for one of the true freshmen, Riley Ferguson or Joshua Dobbs, waiting to unseat him. The question on everybody's mind is: When will they be ready?

That question lingers after neither played in another close contest.

There were times throughout the first half when Worley looked like he'd grown considerably since losing the job to Nathan Peterman during Florida week. 

Much like he did against the Gators, Worley was more decisive, anticipating receivers getting open rather than waiting on them to break free and throwing late. Even when he threw into triple coverage, resulting in an interception in the end zone, he did it without hesitation. He simply made a poor decision.

Sep 28, 2013; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Justin Worley (14) drops back to pass the ball against the South Alabama Jaguars during the second half at Neyland Stadium. Tennessee won 31 to 24. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

But an otherwise strong first half was marred by another interception in the end zone in the waning minutes that could have helped put the Vols up 31-7 at the break. Worley's final first-half numbers were 15-of-22 for 150 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

He led UT down the field for another score to open the second half. Then, things took a downward spiral.

Vols linebacker Brent Brewer intercepted a USA pass to set Tennessee up with a first down on the Jags' 35-yard line ahead 31-7. However, Worley immediately returned the favor, throwing a pick of his own that was returned 58 yards to set up a score and set the stage for a furious comeback.

After that interception, Worley simply looked confused by the blitz packages USA threw in his direction, and he couldn't get on the same page with his receivers. 

During the game's final 24 minutes and six seconds, UT had 68 yards of total offense, and Worley completed just four of 12 passes for 37 yards.

Whether or not that crippling interception made Worley more reluctant is debatable. What isn't in question is the fact that he was not the same decisive quarterback, and his timing was off for the rest of the game.

Some Tennessee fans were disgruntled enough with Worley—and, likely, the Vols in general—to voice their displeasure, according to a tweet by the Knoxville News Sentinel's John Adams.

Justin Worley draws first boos of the game with a third-down overthrow.

— John Adams (@johnadamskns) September 28, 2013

Even in the face of fan frustrations, Jones stuck with Worley, even though he has now thrown five interceptions in his past six quarters.

It's a tough time for fans who say they believe in Jones yet are clamoring for one of the freshmen quarterbacks. According to Ryan Callahan of GoVols247 (subscription), UT's coach indicated that Saturday wasn't the right time for a freshman's debut.

"When they’re ready to play, they’ll be ready to play," Jones said. "That’s the thing."

Everybody saw firsthand what can happen when a quarterback who isn't ready gets the nod like Peterman did against Florida. Jones is now having to balance whether to stick with an upperclassman quarterback who hasn't been very good or gamble on a talented freshman who may not be ready.

It's a dilemma that has cost UT already this season. Though Worley may not be a good option, the sobering thing for UT fans is he may be the best option the Vols currently have.