From buried to bowling, Tennessee saves season with second-half surge
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Outside linebackers coach Chris Rumph flashed a big grin, waved to the crowd and made Memorial Stadium his own personal bowling alley.
Jauan Jennings did the same, as Tennessee’s star wideout mimicked blowing a strike before grinning to the crowd and quickly exiting stage left toward the locker room.
Elsewhere, Tee Martin gave Jarrett Guarantano a huge bear hug and guys like K’Rojhn Calbert, Wanya Morris, Daniel Bituli and Bryce Thompson rushed into the stands to high-five fans and sign autographs.
My how much as changed since the first few weeks of the 2019 season.
Tennessee, warts and all, slipped past Missouri 24-20 on a frigid Saturday night in Columbia — almost inexplicably reaching bowl eligibility after an 0-2 start that had many folks questioning Jeremy Pruitt’s ability to lead the program.
“We knew what we were doing when we took the job,” Pruitt said, breathing the freezing air while cracking a wry smile usually saved for off-camera. .
“We knew where this program was at. We knew where the men on our staff could take it. Are we where we want to be? Absolutely not, OK, but we’re heading there, and we’re getting there as fast as we can.”
Under Pruitt, and Guarantano and Jennings and others, the Vols have engineered a second-half turnaround no one saw coming.
Except for them.
After getting waxed at Florida, a 31-3 beatdown where Tennessee was non-competitive for most of the game, Pruitt took out his frustrations on the team in the locker room. He was wasn’t finished either, calling a team-meeting again that night just before they broke for their first bye week.
“It was kind of crazy. I was like, ‘What’s going on? We’d just got off the plane, supposed to be going home,’” freshman linebacker Quavaris Crouch explained on a frozen Faurot Field postgame.
“But it was a real serious meeting. Coach Pruitt wanted to tell us that he loves us. He’s a player’s coach. We all just had a heart-to-heart. We promised each other we were going to keep fighting and turn the whole season around. … We never flenched.”
The Vols were 1-3 and staring at a lost season. All opinions were on the table. Pruitt spoke. So did some players. It was emotional, but necessary.
“I was pretty direct with them,” Pruitt said. “I wasn’t very happy with the way we played that day. We were better than that. You’re only as good as what you put on the field. I was frustrated. … We sitting there (1-3). We’re going to make a bowl game. How are we going to do it? I wanted to lay out a way that we could get to this point, and we’ve done that.”
Most importantly, Pruitt told his team that he still believed in them. That he was behind them.
For a battered and bruised group just needing any beacon of hope, having their head coach deliver such a message “meant everything.”
“This team worked so hard to be in the position we are in right now. Things didn’t go our way at the beginning of the year, but we kept on pushing,” senior linebacker Daniel Bituli said.
“This is a program that needs to go to a bowl game every year. It’s Tennessee, so to be able to go to a bowl game and set a standard again, the way it should have been all along, it really means a lot.”
The Vols have now won four straight, rattling off a quartet of victories — one different than the next. A blowout over South Carolina. A defensive gem vs. UAB. A nail-biter at Kentucky. And Saturday, the night Guarantano’s comeback story officially came full circle, as Pruitt’s faith in the embattled quarterback paid off again as the redshirt junior threw Tennessee to victory despite a game full of miscues elsewhere from the Vols.
Without a doubt, no player has embodied the rollercoaster nature of Tennessee’s up-and-down season like its redshirt junior quarterback. Terrible at the start, Guarantano has rebounded to become a key fixture in Tennessee’s turnaround.
You’d be hard pressed to think of a stranger revival.
Benched after Florida and buried after the calamity at Alabama, Guarantano said he faced “death threats” and that his sister was harassed online during the season’s nadir. And yet, he has responded with several saving performances in a supporting role the last six weeks, and Saturday night, he was back in the starting lineup for the first time since the loss to UF.
Guarantano threw for a career-high 415 yards and two scores. He had 243 yards at halftime — a feat he’d eclipsed just twice in 60 minutes in his career. He was still woefully inaccurate at times against Mizzou, yet for every missed swing pass there was a 20-yard completion for a key first down. As Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer each made one dazzling catch after the next, the Vols finished with three receivers over 100 yards for the first time in school history and notched win No. 6 — a silly thought just is weeks ago.
“That’s pretty cool,” Callaway said.
Many are saying the same about Tennessee’s stunning turnaround.