Today's lesson in irony: On a night when Tennessee's special teams were almost comically bad, two of the bright spots were involved in the kicking game ... Cordarrelle Patterson and Michael Palardy.
Patterson's 98-yard kickoff return in Saturday's 41-31 loss at Mississippi State bumped his season average to 38.2 yards per runback. That's well ahead of the school-record mark of 29.82 set by Dale Carter in 1990.
Patterson is no threat to break the single-season school records for return attempts or return yardage, however. David Oku set both of those marks in 2009, returning 33 kickoffs for a total of 863 yards. Patterson has returned just eight kicks for 306 yards midway through the 2012 season.
The 98-yard return by "CP" versus Mississippi State was Tennessee's first touchdown on a conventional kickoff since Mark Jones hauled one back 82 yards against Alabama in 2002. Bret Smith returned an onsides kick 44 yards for a TD against South Carolina in 2004.
Only four players in Vol history have recorded kickoff returns longer than Patterson's — the most recent being Leonard Scott (100 yards in 1999 versus Georgia). Three other players also went goal line to goal line — Peerless Price in 1998 (versus Alabama), Pete Panuska in 1984 (versus Maryland) and Willie Gault in 1980 (versus Pittsburgh).
With a 98-yard kickoff return and an 11-yard scoring reception, Patterson became the first Vol to post a scrimmage touchdown and a special-teams touchdown in the same game since Carl Pickens did so versus Louisville in 1991. Only three other Vols have turned the trick — Gault versus Kentucky in 1980, Gary Moore versus Auburn in 1979 and Stanley Morgan versus Maryland in '75.
Palardy wasn't as dynamic as Patterson but he had a pretty good night in Starkville, too, despite booting one kickoff out of bounds.
The junior place-kicker made his only field-goal attempt, nailing a season-long 38-yarder to pull Tennessee within 27-17 in the third quarter. He also made all four of his PAT attempts, an area Vol fans no longer take for granted. He averaged 62.7 yards on kickoffs, meaning his typical kick was fielded at the 2-yard line.
In addition, he averaged 44.7 yards gross and 42.3 net on three punts after taking over for struggling starter Matt Darr. Palardy would've averaged 52.7 yards gross and net except that a 53-yard second-quarter punt with no return was nullified by penalty. The ensuing do-over went just 29 yards with a seven-yard runback.
A.J. HAS A NOSE FOR THE BALL
With a career-high 21 stops versus Mississippi State, sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson became the first Vol defender in 48 years to crack the 20-stop barrier. Linebacker Tom Fisher notched 28 tackles (21 of them primary stops) versus Auburn in 1964.
Counting 11-tackle efforts against Florida in Game 3, Akron in Game 4 and Georgia in Game 5, Johnson now has four double-digit performances in a row and seven for his career. He is averaging 10.5 stops per game this season (63 tackles in six games) and is on pace to post 126 tackles this season. That won't even approach the school record, though. Linebacker Andy Spiva set a standard that may never be topped with 194 tackles in 1976.
ARE THOSE ORANGE PANTS SMOKING?
Tennessee (3-3 overall, 0-3 SEC) may be unranked but its head coach is. Derek Dooley is listed No. 2 at self-explanatory CoachesHotSeat.com. Boston College's Frank Spaziani is No. 1, followed in order by Dooley, Auburn's Gene Chizik, Cal's Jeff Tedford and Kentucky's Joker Phillips. It's no surprise that three of the five work in the ultra-competitive SEC.
In the wake of the Mississippi State loss, Dooley stands 0-13 against ranked opponents and 1-9 in SEC road games. He has dropped 10 of his last 11 conference games.
Dooley has come up short in his last two contests, despite scoring 44 points against Georgia and 31 against Mississippi State. Prior to that, he was 11-1 when Tennessee scored 25 or more points in a game.
THE SILVER LINING DEPARTMENT
We interrupt this parade of bad news to offer the following positive note: Tennessee dominated the third quarter of Saturday night's game. The Vols outscored Mississippi State 10-0, outgained the Bulldogs 183-10 in yards and posted 10 first downs to MSU's zero.
Now back to the ugly stuff ...
DIFFICULT TO DEFEND THE DEFENSE
This may surprise you but, statistically speaking, the 2012 Vols are not the worst defense in program history. That distinction belongs to the 1893 team that gave up 256 points in six games, an average of 42.7 per game.
The scores that year were Kentucky A&M 56, Tennessee 0; Wake Forest 64, Tennessee 0; Trinity 70, Tennessee 0, North Carolina 60, Tennessee 0; Tennessee 32, Maryville 0; Tennessee 12, Asheville Athletics 6.
School officials were so humiliated by the football team's showing in 1893 that they disbanded the program in 1894 before reinstating it two years later in 1896.
The 2012 defense could be Tennessee's worst since 1893. The '12 Vols have allowed 189 points through six games, an average of 31.5 per contest that has them on pace to surrender 378 points in 12 games.
Only two previous defenses in Tennessee history surrendered 300 points in a season. The 2007 stop unit coordinated by John Chavis allowed
382 points in 14 games, an average of 27.3 per contest. The 2010 group coordinated by Justin Wilcox allowed 326 points in 13 games, an average of 25.1 per outing.
The third-most generous defense in Vol annals was the 2009 squad coordinated by Monte Kiffin. It surrendered 289 points in 13 games, an average of 22.2 per game. The 1988 and 1997 squads allowed 286 points each. The '88 team did so in 11 games, going 5-6. The '97 team did so in 13 games and, with senior Peyton Manning at quarterback, still scored enough points to finish 11-2.
Next up on the disastrous defenses chart are the 1984 group (276 points), the 2011 group (271 points), the 1981 group (265 points) and the 1991 group (263 points).
Tennessee's 2012 defense has been especially porous against its SEC foes — Florida, Georgia and Mississippi State. Here's how the Vols rank among the 14 league programs in conference games only:
Points allowed per game: 14th at 43.0 (Kentucky is 13th at 38.0)
Rushing yards allowed per game: 14th at 250.7 (Vanderbilt is 13th at 245.8)
Total yards allowed per game: 14th at 521.7 (Texas A&M is 13th at 428.7 ... nearly 100 yards ahead of Tennessee)
Passing yards allowed per game: 12th at 271.0
Pass efficiency defense: 14th with a 174.6 rating (Kentucky is 13th at 162.5)