ATLANTA — It wasn’t easy for the Vols, but they stormed back from a 14 point fourth quarter deficit tonight to open the season with a wild 42-41 win over Georgia Tech in the season opener. Here’s our instant analysis.
1 — Keep fighting — For approximately 55 minutes on Monday night Tennessee looked like the first order of business this football season was going to be putting out the dumpster fire they started in the state-of-the-art Mercedes Benz Stadium.
Georgia Tech controlled just about every aspect of the game for three quarters and change and looked well on its way to nailing down a win when the Vols came up with an absolutely enormous turnover.
Rashaan Gaulden forced the fumble after Georgia Tech had moved deep into Tennessee territory and Micah Abernathy pounced on it at the Vols own seven yard line with 4:50 left in the game and the Vols trailing 28-21.
What had been a sputtering Tennessee offense took advantage of the break, moving 93 yards in just seven plays to tie the game.
Before Butch Jones’ press conference even takes place, I’m going to bet that the word ‘resiliency’ gets thrown around a few times.
Marquez Callaway punctuated the drive with a sensational jump ball grab on a 40-yard completion down the Yellow Jackets’ Georgia Tech 27. Two nifty runs from John Kelly put the Vols in the end zone, setting up a wild finish in overtime.
That paved the way for the nail-biting finish in overtime that saw Tennessee escape when the Vols stopped a two-point conversion attempt from Georgia Tech in the second overtime.
The Vols had little difficulty in punching the ball in on both of their offensive possessions in overtime, but the outcome hung in the balance until the Yellow Jackets’ gutsy two-point attempt was stopped.
Tennessee looked dead in the water when Georgia Tech went up 28-14 with 13:08 left in the game. The Vols had barely slowed the Yellow Jackets down to that point and had been unable to establish anything resembling an offensive rhythm themselves. In short, it wasn’t an ending that many saw coming.
It’s an understatement to say that Tennessee leaves this game with plenty of issues to address, but it’s a great deal easier to get to work correcting problems after a win than what would have been a disappointing season opening loss.
2 — Quarterback play — Anytime you’re breaking in a new guy under center he’s going to come under enormous scrutiny and that’s certainly the case here with Quentin Dormady.
The junior made his first carer start tonight and it’s safe to say it was an up-and-down affair. Dormady, frankly, didn’t look ready for the limelight for much of the first three quarters. After three quarters of play Dormady was a pedestrian 13-for-26 for 93 yards and the Vols’ longest pass play of the night was a 14 yard completion to tight end Ethan Wolf.
In the fourth quarter Dormady was 6-of-10 for 113 yards and led the Vols on two pressure-packed TD drives that they had to have in order to stay alive.
Credit Dormady for coming through in the clutch. That cannot be underestimated, and really, is all that matters in this one.
Prior to that furious fourth quarter though just about everyone in Big Orange Country was clamoring for Jarrett Guarantano to get get a chance to show what he could do.
To be fair, Dormady wasn’t getting a great deal of help from his receivers, who had multiple drops in the first half. Adding to the challenge, the only proving WR on the team—Jauan Jennings—was injured in the first half and didn’t return. So, with Josh Smith already sidelined, the Vols didn’t have an active receiver with a touchdown catch in his career.
Dormady himself though struggled early. He didn’t look comfortable in the pocket for much of the first half, forced several throws into traffic that he was fortunate weren’t picked off and had several other passes that were just off target either through user error or miscommunication with a very young receiving corps.
The good news is that the Vols escaped in rather miraculous fashion after stopping a Georgia Tech two-point conversion attempt in the second overtime and Dormady should learn plenty from this game tape.
3 — Young guys step up — There were some noteworthy performances across the board, but two young guys with virtually nothing on their resume´s to this point came up huge for the Vols tonight. On defense that was Daniel Bituli and on offense it was Marquez Callaway.
Bituli made his first start tonight at strong side linebacker as the Vols were exclusively a 4-3 team on defense all night. How’d he do? Not too bad. Bituli finished his first start with 23 tackles on the night, simply an incredible performance from a guy who wasn’t even expected to start the game based on the ‘organizational’ chart released by Tennessee.
As for Callaway, the sophomore stepped up huge after Jennings headed to the locker room and didn’t return.
A presumed starter entering fall camp, Callaway ended up starting the game off as a reserve but he ended it as the playmaker the Vols have desperately been searching for at wideout.
He got his first career touchdown pass in the third quarter, a nice snag on a 10 yard fade to cut the Vols deficit to 21-14.
After a Georgia Tech score made it 28-14 Callaway turned a quick throw into a 50-yard gallop down the sideline to once again bring the Vols to within a touchdown.
He saved his best for last, going up to win a jump ball for that 40-yard gain down to set up Kelly’s tying score. He finished the game with 115 yard receiving on just four catches with two touchdowns.
4 — Work to do — Pressing the panic button after week one can make one look foolish in a long college football season, especially after a win, but there’s no way to leave this game as a Vol fan and not have a few concerns. And alarmingly, many of those concerns are the same ones that derailed last season.
First off, an offensive line that has talked incessantly about the need to be more physical all offseason simply didn’t look much different tonight until maybe the last three possessions of the game.
That’s concerning for a number of reasons, but the first one is that this is a long way from the best defensive front seven the Vols are going to see this season.
Maybe the guys up front didn’t get a chance to establish themselves because of dropped passes, inefficient play at quarterback and play calling that didn’t seem to commit to the run early on. I’ll entertain all those arguments, but at no point time did it seem to me that Tennessee’s offensive front was controlling the line of scrimmage. Not even close.
John Kelly made the most of his opportunities, finishing with 128 yards on 19 carries but through three quarters Kelly had just 10 carries, though he did pick up 73 yards on those touches.
Moving over to the other side of the ball Tennessee gave up 218 yards per game on the ground a year ago and fixing that was a priority. One game in, let’s be kind and say that looks like a continued work in progress. Yes, Georgia Tech is a strong rushing team but that should be somewhat offset by the fact that you know what’s coming most of the time.
That foreknowledge, as well as all the extra time to prepare for the flex bone, didn’t seem to help the Vols much tonight. Georgia Tech—despite being without its top two running backs—gashed the Vols for an eye-popping 535 yards rushing and had two guys top 100 yards rushing. Quarterback Taquon Marshall finished with 249 yards on the ground while running back Kirvonte Benson had 125. Both players were making their first career starts.
Similarly, big plays killed the Vols in 2016. After one game it doesn’t appear they’ve cleaned that up. Georgia Tech had five plays of at least 25 yards tonight, including two pass completions of 40+ yards.
It was an incredibly emotional win, certainly better than the alternative, but there’s plenty to clean up.