Upon Further Review: A Rocky Top redemption
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Two weeks into the year, Tennessee was the butt of jokes in the college football world.
Two weeks later, the Vols’ season — and recent program doldrums — appeared to reach its nadir with another blowout loss to Florida.
They were 1-3 with no identity. There was little describable hope. The future looked murky. Yet two months later, Tennessee is suddenly in excellent shape of playing in a bowl game less than 80 miles from where its program crossroads seemingly took place.
“This is why you get into coaching: to watch a team become a team,” Pruitt said.
“Everyone has all these dreams of what’s going to happen as the season starts. It didn’t happen that way for us. A lot of that was self-inflicted on us, falls back on me. But these guys stuck together. Everybody in our organization. And it’s hard to do in this day and time, with all the noise and the clutter that is out there. But these guys did that. It says a lot about who they are, the character, who raised them. And it says a whole lot about the future of our program.”
Somehow a second-year coach, a group of cast-offs and one of the most maligned athletes in Tennessee history rallied together to engineer a remarkable midseason turnaround.
Wake Flocka’s “Grove St. Party” was blasting in Memorial Stadium all evening Saturday, but after Tennessee once again found a way to outlast another opponent, it was the Vols, and not the Tigers who were picked to finish No. 3 in the SEC East, that were dancing deep in the bowels of a frigid Faurot Field.
“We feel like our guys are bought in. We have a great culture,” Pruitt said, even cracking a few smiles postgame.
“Our kids love to go to work. Our strength staff, our nutrition staff, everybody that is associated with our program is tied in. We’re all lined up together and we’re excited about the future.”
The Vols had plenty of reasons not to win Saturday night. They were sloppy. They mismanaged the clock. They lost the turnover battle. They were out-scored in the fourth quarter.
But a trio of 100-yard receivers can skew a typical outcome, and for the fourth straight week, a team left for dead found a way to win and is now suddenly going bowling for the first time since 2016.
THE STARTING 11
Each week, I’ll rewatch the tape so you don’t have to. Here’s a skinny dozen of notes, analysis and final thoughts…
1. Rapid report card grades!
2. Five guys who I thought played well
A. The law firm of Jennings, Palmer and Callaway
B. FS Nigel Warrior
C. QB Jarrett Guarantano
D. LB Henry To’oto’o
E. Vols reserve DL
There aren’t enough adjectives to praise the work from Jauan Jennings, Josh Palmer and Marquez Callaway on Saturday. All three made tough catches. All three took brutal shots. All three stood tall at the end, with Jennings even (semi-jokingly but definitely in character) taunting any Missouri media members to ask him a question as he stood in 28 degree weather wearing just a tank top. The senior, who leads the SEC in avoided tackles and YAC, was the YAC king once again, with 64 of his 115 yards coming after the catch.
Meanwhile, Palmer and Callaway played their role of physical power forwards, using their size and strength to just box out poor Mizzou defensive backs on jump balls and slants.
Warrior continued his fantastic play the last 10 weeks, finishing second on the team in tackles and breaking up two more passes. He had a big TFL for a six-yard loss but his biggest play of the game might’ve been his tackle on Missouri’s first drive, where he blanketed the receiver for a short catch and made a tackle a yard from the first down marker inside the 15-yard line. The stop was the difference between a potential touchdown drive and three points — the Vols won by four.
Henry To’oto’o, with every brace imaginable on his elbow, knee and ankle, had a strong night rallying to the football. He had a couple TFLs and delivered a big hit on Kelly Bryant. The freshman was partially at fault on the Tigers’ double-pass touchdown, but overall, it was a strong night from the linebacker.
Finally, Aubrey Solomon exited the game in the first quarter with a head injury but Tennessee’s improving front-four didn’t take a massive step backward despite losing its best player. Matthew Butler and Kurott Garland both stepped up and played more snaps, with Butler batting a pass and recording a hurry, while Garland had two pressures and totally blew up a run play with a pretty swim move.
3. Five guys (units or coaches) who’d like Saturday back
A. Tennessee’s special teams
B. RB Tim Jordan
C. Tennessee’s in-game management (clock and substitution)
D. DB Shawn Shamburger
E. Tennessee’s penchant for silly penalties
Overall, Tennessee’s special teams were particularly suspect Saturday night. The Vols had two kicks blocked, one because Jerome Carvin and K’Rojhn Calbert didn’t have tight enough splits, and then another because of a wobbly snap and a low kick. Brent Cimaglia has been nails this season, but that was a game he’d like to forget. The junior was fortunate to not get injured on the second blocked field goal, too. Ty Chandler taking a knee at the 8-yard line because he was confused about the fair catch rule wasn’t great, and while Pruitt knew Mizzou’s fake punt was coming, no one else on the team did apparently.
Jeremy Pruitt is a solid in-game coach, but the Vols’ second-year commander made several head-scratching decisions Saturday, particularly at the end of the first half. With 38 seconds remaining before halftime, the Vols took over at their own 24-yard line. By declining the 10-second run off two plays earlier, Pruitt had already shown his hand that Tennessee planned to be aggressive in this spot.
But inexplicably, the Vols called a timeout before the drive started with the clock already stopped.
After a couple big completions, Guarantano scrambled for a first down deep in Mizzou territory, but instead of calling a timeout with eight seconds on the clock to save time to attempt a fade to one of your star wideouts, the Vols let the clock roll down to four seconds, with only enough time to kick a field goal. Other decisions were strange (mistakes like opening a drive with 12 men on the field on defense), but the Vols were fortunate not to pay the price for their mistakes in the 2-minute drill before halftime.
As for Jordan, on the whole, it’s a bit unfair to slot him in this category as the tailback was productive Saturday — both as a runner (a team-high 74 yards at 5.4 per clip) and receiver (22 yard reception). But his fourth-quarter fumble — when he barreled into Trey Smith and coughed up the ball — could’ve cost Tennessee the game.
Lastly, Tennessee had a slew of dumb penalties, including four pre-snap flags which was four too many in a game at a Memorial Stadium that was half empty and clad with plenty of orange to boot. Calbert had two false starts. Bituli negated a sack. Shamburger had a bone-headed personal foul.
4. Just how crazy was Jarrett Guarantano’s night?
Pruitt’s assertion that it was “far and away” Guarantano’s best game of his career doesn’t even do the glowing quote justice.
The redshirt junior finished with 415 yards, with 10 completions over 20 yards. Missouri entered the game yielding just 24 such throws though the first 10 games of the season.
Also, Guarantano, who had 243 yards at halftime, had only thrown north of 200 yards just six times in 31 career games.
Much like the Auburn game a year ago, Guarantano was lethal on third down, but this time they weren’t just all back-shoulder fades.
He hit crossers. Out routes. And a perfect seam pattern.
Over 40 percent of his yardage came on the “money down.” After not converting a single third down in the first quarter, Guarantano accounted for eight conversions through the air over the next three quarters, including both touchdowns. He would’ve had a ninth conversion on a 3rd-and-21, too but Dominick Wood-Anderson was ruled inches short of the marker.
Guarantano still can’t throw a swing pass to save his life, but his deep ball accuracy was sublime Saturday. He arguably could’ve had an even more impressive stat line when a throw went through Jennings’ hands in the back of the end zone in the first quarter.
Guarantano made some eye-raising comments after the game, but his current intention to return to Tennessee next season — “I’m a Vol” — was very interesting in terms of what that could mean for the quarterback room this spring.
5. My favorite pitch-and-catch plays from each of Tennessee's star wideouts
A. Josh Palmer's absurd concentration, catch and balance
B. Jennings mashes the YAC button on the controller
C. Callaway goes Mossin'
6. How did Tennessee open up its ground game?
Mostly by executing its classics — stretch runs, outside zone, inside counters.
It was an academic exercise really. There weren't wholesale changes in the plan. The Vols simply blocked better on the interior and ran behind their best OL — Big No. 73.
On runs middle left (between the center and left guard) to tackle, Tennessee averaged 6.2 yards per carry on nine runs.
Jim Chaney did dive into his bag during the bye week and dial up one wrinkle, which was using Calbert as an extra tight end in various formations. Calbert was flexed in the backfield at times, mainly on several toss sweeps, but also lined up on the edge next to Austin Pope as an extra body on the left side.
Tennessee’s early perimeter runs helped stretch Mizzou’s defense wide and gave the Vols more room to operate in the box as the game wore on. The Vols never broke off a big chunk run, but they hit 5 and 6-yard gains with regularity.
Here was a great example of guys getting a hat on a hat. Trey Smith bulldozes a dude. Side note: This should never be called holding and it wasn’t the rest of the game.
One other run game wrinkle from Saturday: On Quavaris Crouch’s touchdown run (i.e. the play that should’ve happened at Alabama), defense end Latrell Bumphus lined up as the lead blocker at fullback and delivered a great kickout block.
7. Speaking of Chaney, Tennessee’s offensive coordinator deserves his due for calling a great game against a solid Missouri defense.
With the Tigers’ best cornerback DeMarkus Acy sidelined with a hamstring injury, Chaney routinely picked on backup Christian Holmes. The senior will not enjoy Sunday’s film session.
The Vols targeted Holmes 11 times and Mizzou’s cornerback allowed six receptions for 104 yards and a touchdown. He was also flagged four times for pass interference on those 11 targets.
Whenever it seemed like the Vols needed a big play or first down, Chaney looked for No. 21 and called a play in his direction.
8. Tennessee’s defense did allow a Missouri team to score two touchdowns after it had gone 33 drives without one dating back to losses to Georgia and Florida, but still, the Vols held the Tigers to under 300 yards.
Mizzou was without several of its top playmakers, and it’s crazy to think, but Tennessee has never really had to face-off versus future NFL tight end Albert Okwuegbunam the last three seasons. He’s been mostly hurt the previous two meetings and sat out yesterday with another injury.
I noted Warrior’s stellar night, but Bituli and Darrell Taylor both had strong second halves, and Bryce Thompson, who got all turned around on Mizzou’s longest play of the night, did gut it out for nearly 70 snaps, never leaving the field.
9. Find you a coach who loves a fire-cat blitz like Jeremy Pruitt.
Just a perfect call (and execution by Henry To’oto’o) that sealed the game on Tennessee’s final defensive stand.
10. Some final stray thoughts and observations…
*** Once again, Jahmir Johnson had some interesting tweets after the game. While most of the team seems very united, Johnson continues to be an outlier.
He played just three snaps Saturday — one series. When Tennessee was down 10-7, Johnson replaced Morris. The Vols had three incompletions, and Johnson did stone an edge rusher on one down, but he never saw the field again.
*** The decision to put Brian Maurer in the game was puzzling. The Vols had just been penalized for a hold, and Pruitt yanked Calbert to give him an earful. So freshman Darnell Wright (who is still hobbled) enters the game. There was no sign that Guarantano’s helmet came off or that he needed medical attention. On Maurer’s one play, he nearly got Callaway’s ribs destroyed.
*** I understand the arguments that this play could absolutely qualify as targeting, but after Tennessee fans were the recipients of seeing its linebackers make some phenomenal goal line stops, Bolton’s thud on Jennings literally made folks gasp in the press box.
11. The last word: Where does Guarantano want to go bowling this holiday season?