Tennessee won a football game for the first time in 42 days.
For a team that may not get many more victories this season, that’s progress.
Watching Saturday’s 24-10 win over Southern Miss felt like squeezing Sriracha straight into your eyes, but a painful viewing experience doesn’t diminish the Vols’ guts and grit last night.
Tennessee crammed as much drama in a Shakespeare play into a seven day period last week with all the rumors, scandals and a boycott movement, yet the Vols didn’t just lay down against the Golden Eagles.
Despite an 0-for-October, they went out there and competed. They fought. They still made a million mistakes, but their pride proved the difference for a night.
Tennessee’s normally porous run defense did a great job bottling up Ito Smith. The patchwork offensive line performed well near the goal line (kudos specifically to Coleman Thomas, Jakob Johnson and Ryan Johnson for key blocks).
Tennessee scored touchdowns in the red zone. The defense had 10 tackles for loss.
And yet, beating a crappy Conference USA team isn’t going to change the needle for Butch Jones.
Tennessee is still a bad football team with shaky bowl prospects. The same conversations that have dominated talk radio and message boards will continue this week, especially since the Vols are a 10-point underdog at Missouri.
But in a frustrating season where seemingly everything has gone wrong, the silver lining Saturday is that players who have continued to fight and scratch finally got to smile and sing Rocky Top with their teammates.
Right now, that’s something at least.
THE STARTING 11
A skinny dozen of quick-hitters and final thoughts…
1. Let’s talk injuries. I posted this on both the General’s Quarters and Twitter, but Tennessee’s injury situation has reached levels of absurdity.
The Vols had just six scholarship offensive linemen available Saturday, and they were forced to burn Riley Locklear’s redshirt as both Thomas and DeVante Brooks got dinged up.
By the end of game, Tennessee was without at least 22 scholarship players. That’s a quarter of the entire roster.
“I don’t think there’s any coach on our staff that’s been through it like this,” Jones said afterward.
The problem is Jones said similar statements last season. And the year before that.
It’s been a three-year trend now at Tennessee. Every team is banged up by November, but the Vols continue to battle cataclysmic injuries each season.
What is happening?
I have no idea what the answers are, but clearly Jones doesn’t either. No matter who Tennessee’s coach is next season, they must figure out a way to address one of the principle problems that’s holding this program back right now.
2. Tennessee scored its first opening drive touchdown of the season Saturday. In Week 10.
Evan Berry set-up the offense with excellent field position after a big KR, and Jarrett Guarantano had three crisp completions before his scrabble score. Aside from two other explosive plays, that was pretty much the highlight of Tennessee’s offense for the evening.
3. The Guarantano to Marquez Callaway pitch-and-catch was perfect. Nice protection, excellent ball placement and a great grab by No. 1. Might want to try that more often.
Meanwhile, John Kelly’s 20-yard touchdown run was pure dog. Those two plays combined for 62 yards. For the rest of the game, Tennessee had 148 total yards for just 2.6 yards per play.
4. The Vols remain outlandishly predictable, especially on first down. Tennessee is routinely behind the sticks on 2nd and 3rd down because every defense just gears up for an outside zone or stretch on first down.
Against Southern Miss, the Vols ran the football 19 times on first down. They gained 57 yards.
That’s 3.0 yards per carry. Those 57 yards include Kelly’s 20-yard touchdown, too.
Tennessee had 12 first down attempts that went for 2 yards or fewer. They attempted just five passing plays on first down, resulting in four incompletions and a 5-yard sack.
Overall, Tennessee averaged 2.2 yards per play on 24 first down plays. In a related note, Tennessee was just 2 of 13 on 3rd downs.
5. It will be interesting to follow Guarantano’s progress throughout this week, as the redshirt sophomore quarterback looked very gimpy postgame. In the second quarter, Guarantano exited for three plays, giving way to Will McBride.
He then came back in the game with his ankle heavily tapped and then very awkwardly took a knee to end the half. He didn’t play at all after halftime, and even went back to the locker room at one point. Jones was noncommittal on the specifics of JG’s injury, but the Vols need their quarterback to have his mobility Saturday at Mizzou.
6. I thought the hullabaloo surrounding Will McBride’s redshirt was overblown. Guarantano didn’t just lose his helmet. Trainers had to help him off the field. Could Tennessee have run a couple ‘WildCat’ plays? Sure.
But clearly, Guarantano was hurt enough where needing your backup quarterback was the only option.
In terms of McBride’s play, he was fine. He tossed a nice deep pass that just went off the fingertips of Josh Palmer, he had a couple other short passes dropped and avoided a big mistake.
He took a bad sack when he panicked in the pocket, but otherwise he managed the offense nicely.
7. Tennessee needs more Nigel Warrior's on defense.
The sophomore safety was fortunate to avoid a targeting ejection early in the first quarter, and that was great news for Tennessee, because Warrior delivered (IMO) the most complete game of his career. He was solid in coverage and great in run support.
8. Welcome back, Darrell Taylor.
After a fantastic opener against Georgia Tech, Taylor had mostly disappeared — for multiple reasons — from Tennessee’s defense over the last two months. The defensive end had a great game Saturday though, recording two sacks, a key forced fumble and a pass breakup at the line of scrimmage.
9. Rashaan Gaulden. Still a really good football player. Team-leading 9 tackles, 1 TFL, a fumble recovery, 1 PBU.
Also: The Good. The Bad. And The Ugly. A three play haiku from Emmanuel Moseley.
10. Bob Shoop was very aggressive Saturday and deserves kudos for his gameplan. Tennessee played a lot of cover-1 and cover-0, routinely blitzing Gaulden and Colton Jumper to disrupt Southern Miss' deep passing attack and solid ground game.
Tennessee’s interior DL played well (especially Shy Tuttle) and Jumper was the beneficiary of open gaps, finishing with 2.5 TFLs and 2 quarterback hits.
11. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Trevor Daniel.
With Tennessee’s offense still spinning its wheels, the Vols were actually able to dominate final position since their senior punter uncorked six bombs over 50 yards. Daniel pinned Southern Miss inside the 20 three times, too.
Daniel’s titanium leg remains Tennessee’s best weapon right now.