Upon Further Review: A course correction?
A little more than a month ago, Jeremy Pruitt compared his 2019 Tennessee football team to the Titanic.
Everyone laughed because it was stupid.
But perhaps, just maybe, the second-year head coach was on to something, even if was accidental.
If you look at these Vols as a random ship — instead of say, a historic vessel with the most negative connotation imaginable — then maybe the metaphor works.
After a 34-3 loss at Florida, Tennessee’s season looked sunk. Some five weeks later though, the Vols’ bowl hopes are miraculously still afloat.
History will judge if what happened in Neyland Stadium yesterday will be remembered as a program-defining win, but this was unmistakably different than the upsets over Auburn and Kentucky last season. This was not beating Mississippi State, either.
Midway through Year 2 in the Pruitt Era, the Vols routed South Carolina in complete fashion. It was complementary football at its finest. And it came with plenty of adversity, too.
Has the wormed turned for the Vols? This is what complimentary football looks like:— Jesse Simonton (@JesseReSimonton) October 27, 2019
Offense: 351 passing yards, 134 rushing yards and 3 explosive TDs
Defense: 3 sacks, 5 TFLs, 7 PBUs and pitched a second-half shutout
Special Teams: 65-yard punt return TD, block punt for TD
The 41-21 victory looks all-the-more impressive when you consider what Tennessee overcame in a 20-point win. The Vols were without their starting quarterback and played three other guys behind center.
On a team with little depth, as many as eight regulars —
DL Darel Middleton
RT Darnell Wright
LT Wanya Morris
QB Jarrett Guarantano
DL Aubrey Solomon
TE Austin Pope
DE Darrell Taylor
WR Marquez Callaway
— had to leave the game (either for good or for a period of plays) at one point or another. Meanwhile, for the second straight week, the officials seemed to enjoy hearing Pruitt repeat his favorite four-letter words in their faces.
And yet, the Vols never lost their spirt. They embraced the passion of Jauan Jennings and Darrell Taylor and never quit the fight. The staff had a fantastic gameplan and the players played with tenacity, conviction and execution.
Down 7-zip in 11 seconds?
“You look at our team, tonight was a chance for our program to grow up,” Pruitt said.
“Our team is really fired up, and I am happy for them. It was a huge team win. We had a lot of guys go down tonight and a lot of guys stepped up. Nobody blinked. Everybody responded.”
Phillip Fulmer referred to Tennessee’s program as “a big ship” this summer, so if games against Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama showed the progress of patching holes and tinkering with the engine, then was Saturday’s blowout win over South Carolina a sign that this tanker is truly ready to course-correct and head in the right direction?
Only time will tell.
THE STARTING 11
Each week, I’ll rewatch the tape so you don’t have to. Here’s a skinny dozen of quick-hitters, analysis and final thoughts…
1. Rapid report card grades!
With so many strong performances, in lieu of the categories of five guys who played well and five who’d like Saturday back, here’s my five favorite plays from Saturday, plus five guys who, perhaps quietly, made winning contributions that might’ve gone unnoticed without a rewatch.
2-6. My favorite five plays from Tennessee’s win…
A. Marquez Callaway’s house call
This is just perfectly executed, setup by five freshman on the punt team, including Warren Burrell at gunner, who does a great job avoiding a clipping penalty, and Jaylen McCollough, who makes the initial inside seal block. It doesn’t get any better than that.
B. Jauan Jennings’ 55-yard touchdown
Just a great play design to beat zone coverage, a good throw by Guarantano, mostly good protection and then Jennings simply does his thing.
Tackling Jauan Jennings seems about as fun as wrestling alligators.— Jesse Simonton (@JesseReSimonton) October 26, 2019
The Dog is a YAC GOD.
Jennings has been remarkable all season, but he was on another level against South Carolina. The senior wideout had 194 total yards, scored two touchdowns and broke eight tackles. Just incredible.
C. A Hillinski Sandwich
Darell Taylor’s first sack, with an assist from Kivon Bennett, was a sign of things to come for Tennessee’s pass rush Saturday. Although South Carolina’s quarterback was mostly bad anyways, constant pressure didn’t help.
The Vols sacked the freshman three times and had five other quarterback hits. Taylor was awesome, and Bennett had his best game as an edge presence in his career, too.
D. Guarantano and Jennings X 2
Jennings runs a pristine route, Guarantano sticks in the pocket despite a protection bust and both guys take brutal shots only to complete a touchdown that sent Neyland into a frenzy.
E. When Bituli goes Butkus
Daniel Bituli played the game of his life Saturday (15 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBU, a punt block and scoop-n-score TD).— Jesse Simonton (@JesseReSimonton) October 27, 2019
I’m not sure you’ll see three better goal line tackles (in succession, too) than he had against Carolina.
This is what stoning a dude in the hole looks like x3. pic.twitter.com/l4kuQVAxn4
Bituli was bananas Saturday, and his three goal line tackles, all essentially him vs. a ball-carrier 1-on-1 at the goal line, is a middle linebacker highlight tape.
7. Five guys who quietly had strong performances
A. WR Josh Palmer
B. NB Shawn Shamburger
C. TEs Austin Pope and Dominick Wood-Anderson
D. DT Aubrey Solomon
E. RB Ty Chandler
Palmer has been the forgotten man in Tennessee’s receiver room, but the junior balled out Saturday. While Jennings and Callaway both went over 100 yards, Palmer had five receptions — four converting first downs. He made an excellent tip-toe catch on the sideline and also muscled two other balls to convert third downs.
Shamburger was excellent in the slot outside of a quick slant he allowed on Carolina’s final drive before halftime. He stoned Tavien Feaster in the backfield on a third-down run and had two PBUs, allowing just two receptions on eight targets.
Brian Niedermeyer’s group didn’t catch a pass on Saturday, but both Pope and Wood-Anderson gleefully accepted their role as willing blockers in both the run game, and especially, pass protection. Tennessee asked both tight ends to block a defensive end or rushing outside linebacker heads-up multiple times on play-action shots and both delivered.
Wood-Anderson gave Guarantano a clean pocket on the 3rd-and-11 conversion to Jennings in the first quarter, while Pope sealed the edge on JT Shrout’s perfect throw to Callaway.
Look at this pocket.
The entire OL deserves kudos for its performance in pass protection Saturday (zero sacks, less than six hurries). The unit’s play, along with the tight ends, allowed Jim Chaney (more on his gameplan in a minute) to call deep zone and man-beaters against Carolina’s coverage. Trey Smith had a highlight tape of pancakes and stone blocks on Javon Kinlaw, making the future first round draft pick a non-factor. Outside of not blocking anyone on Guarantano’s second touchdown to Jennings (when he got pasted on a blindside hit and broke his left hand), Jahmir Johnson was really effective as a pass blocker at left tackle.
Sticking with the offense, Chandler ran hard Saturday. He had a long gain of 15 yards, but after losing the majority of playing time to Tim Jordan a week earlier, the junior saw more snaps than Jordan (35 vs. 29) and was much more productive on twice as many carries (16 carries for 78 yards vs. eight carries for 19 yards).
Finally, Aubrey Solomon gutted it out and was particularly effective bottling up the interior run game. He only finished with one tackle, but if you watch the replay, the Michigan transfer routinely ate up blockers (more than one on many occasions) to allow Bituli an alley to flow to the football. Carolina had the SEC’s second-most efficient run game entering yesterday and they finished with just 92 rushing yards on 26 carries, averaging a paltry 3.5 yards per clip. Since the UGA loss, Tennessee’s run defense has been downright salty the last three weeks.
8. Jim Chaney earned every penny of his $1.5 million salary on Saturday.
This is Jim Chaney's masterpiece with Jauan Jennings sitting in as Mona Lisa.— Jesse Simonton (@JesseReSimonton) October 26, 2019
This is why Pruitt decided to overpay Chaney to come to Tennessee.
He knows the SEC. He’s gone up against Will Muschamp seven times before yesterday. Chaney’s offenses have averaged over 400 yards against Muschamp the last three years, and he had a good defensive mind totally off balance again Saturday.
"They were calling the perfect calls,” Gamecocks cornerback Jaycee Horn said postgame.
In regards to the quarterback merry-go-round, Pruitt said “it was just the way I wanted to do it”, but the the Steve Spurrier shuffle worked and Chaney deserves credit for managing the situation. By going Wildcat early, it allowed Shrout to slowly get his feet wet in the game.
How you do avoid procedural mistakes?
Give your inexperienced quarterback a play-call on the sideline and then let him go back in the game. The Vols rotated Jennings and Shrout the entire first drive.
Chaney really started the flex his muscle though on Guarantano’s opening drive. The Vols didn’t score on the 17-play, 78-yard drive, but they converted several 3rd-and-longs, including a great draw call on 3rd-and-11.
Smith completely eats Kinlaw here, but this is classic Chaney.
The Gamecocks bail into a two-high safety look and the Vols have the numbers advantage in the box. If you block it correctly, it's a first down every time.
Once Tennessee’s offensive coordinator had confidence his unit could block South Carolina, he started to dial up shot plays, including on a couple 2nd-and-9s.
The Gamecocks had all sorts of issues with Tennessee bunch formations and deep-play action crossing routes, with Muschamp actually playing more zone than his defenses typically do … and it didn’t work.
Not including the two-play series just before halftime, Tennessee had seven completions over 20 yards on its next six series following the confidence-boosting drive that ironically ended with zero points at Carolina’s 1-yard line. Chaney, who yelled as much during practice all last week, openly targeted Carolina defensive back Isreal Mukuamu, who allowed close to 150 receiving yards Saturday.
The Vols were averaging just 12.5 points in conference games before yesterday, but Chaney, like Tennessee’s entire team, seems to be heating up as the leaves and autumn temps start falling. Chaney schemed around the team’s deficiencies in the win over Mississippi State, he had Alabama on-tilt at times last weekend, and yesterday, he pantsed Muschamp again.
9. What happened on South Carolina’s opening touchdown?
Bituli had the best game of his career but he loses his depth here, while Jaylen McCollough was confused by the pre-snap motion and misread his responsibility. It should’ve been a 30-yard gain, but Nigel Warrior takes a poor angle and Smith simply outruns Kenneth George, who nearly tripped him up at the 30, and Bryce Thompson.
It should be noted that this was an excellent play design by Carolina. By flexing the H-back out side to boundary, it created confusion in Tennessee’s secondary and opened up the middle of the field.
“I think this might be a first for me,” Pruitt said on allowing a touchdown on the first play of the game.
“But we didn’t blink. We kept on keeping on.”
10. Tennessee has been a bad second-half team under Pruitt. Them’s just the facts, but that changed against Carolina.
Coming into Saturday, the Vols had scored just 16 points in the last eight second-half quarters (four games). They had 24 against Carolina — as many points as the Vols had scored in their last three second-halves combined against the Gamecocks.
How dominant were the Vols for the final 30 minutes yesterday?
Carolina averaged just 4.0 yards per play, was 0 for 9 on third down, gave up six explosive plays and allowed a blocked punt for a touchdown.
11. The last word: Jeremy Pruitt on what Darel Middleton could’ve done to avoid the targeting penalty…
“I don’t know. I asked the same question and I got a 15-yard penalty. ... We probably would have held them if I kept my mouth shut. But I am going to stick up for my players. I guarantee that.”