Upon Further Review: The pain of progress
ATHENS, Ga. — Tennessee has two more games against Top 10 teams over the next three weeks, but on a sweltering Saturday afternoon in Sanford Stadium, the Vols showed they have no interest in being a sacrificial lamb the rest of the season.
While the Vols — losers of all three games vs. Power 5 teams by exactly 26 points — are still a beleaguered bunch, they enter the bye week wounded but not dead.
There’s fight left in this 2018 team.
Georgia was never on the ropes in its 38-12 win on Saturday, but Bulldogs were sweating a bit more than expected early in the fourth quarter — and it wasn’t from the blistering heat.
They were fortunate to avoid a couple turnovers in the first half, and after they relaxed a bit going up 24-0, Tennessee made them pay.
“To me, if you look about the team we played today, the team we play the next week, the team after that — I mean, that's what we want to be," head coach Jeremy Pruitt said.
"All three of these teams are ranked in the Top 10. If you want a measuring stick, go out there and play them and see where you're at, and I think today was a good lesson for our guys.”
Tennessee already knew that UGA had a deeper and more talented roster. The Vols were completely outmatched for much of the game, but moments like Taylor’s strip sacks, or the third quarter stops or Ty Chandler’s zig-zag touchdown are signs that Pruitt can turn and say: “See. This is what I mean.”
Who knows if Tennessee is suddenly a team that could compete for a bowl game come November, but after a six-turnover loss to UF, the Vols actually showed progress against the No. 2 team in the country — even if the result was still another painful SEC defeat.
“If we execute, we have a chance to have success against the better teams in this league,” the head coach would say after the game.
They certainly have plenty of upcoming opportunities to prove it.
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!
2. Tennessee actually allowed more yards Saturday (441) than it did in its 41-0 loss to Georgia a year ago (378), but against an explosive offense, the Vols had a very sound gameplan. Postgame, Tennessee players said the coaches (particularly Kevin Sherrer) familiarity with UGA’s scheme helped a lot, but Pruitt, Sherrer and the rest of the staff deserve credit for devising a plan that kept UT in the game.
Tennessee is still short on impact playmakers on defense, but since the WVU loss, Pruitt's unit has executed each individual gameplan really well.
3. Against UGA it was simple: Build a wall up front, almost always keep one safety high, don’t get the ball thrown over your head, swarm and tackle and send extra pressure occasionally.
The Bulldogs slow-cut team’s to death — illustrated by their three drives over 75 yards and five minutes on the clock — but they also feast on explosive plays. Coming into the game, they had more 50+ yard snaps than any team in the SEC. The Vols weren’t having any of that, though Saturday.
Tennessee was fortunate with a dropped screen pass that was set up really well, but otherwise, the Vols allowed just two plays over 20 yards all game.
After UGA’s opening drive, the staff made nice adjustments on Georgia’s split-zone runs. I also thought the move to keep Micah Abernathy, who had a nice TFL on a delayed blitz that totally confused Jake Fromm, at safety and play Baylen Buchanan mostly at nickel/STAR was a positive for the defense.
Georgia had success throwing at freshman Bryce Thompson, but Thompson and Taylor are the future at CB, and Buchanan had his worst moments (a couple completions to Mecole Hardman and D’Andre Swift’s ankle breaker) out on the boundary. He was much more effective sliding inside and the secondary had better communication with him there and Theo Jackson or Trevon Flowers off the field.
4. Darrell Taylor didn’t erase Tennessee’s overall pass rushing concerns, but he damn near tried.
The redshirt junior had three career sacks before Saturday. He matched that total against the Bulldogs. He whipped tight end Isaac Natua for sack-fumble, only to see UGA run it back for a touchdown. Taylor could only laugh afterwards, saying, “I couldn’t believe it happened. I mean at least I knew we had a long game to go.”
Pruitt credited Tennessee’s secondary for some of the pressure against UGA, specifically noting Taylor’s second sack (see above). Fromm was forced to hold the football because there was no where to throw it and Taylor collapsed the pocket and nailed the quarterback. “He’s one of the guys who’s improved every week,” Pruitt said of Taylor.
5. I’ll be quite curious how Nigel Warrior grades out per, Pro Football Focus. Tennessee’s safety didn’t make any glaring mistakes, but he he also simply didn’t make any plays. There was the potential pick dropped, and also multiple times when Warrior failed to swarm to the football and deliver a lick on an opposing runner.
6. A couple final thoughts defensively: Darrin Kirkland wasn’t great live, but was worse on rewatch. He rotated with Quart’e Sapp and Will Ignont at linebacker, but with my eyes, he easily was the least effective of the three. The redshirt junior had one really nice stop in the hole, but otherwise routinely failed to make plays. Ignont still struggles at times in coverage, but I thought he showed some real flashes in the run game. He’s not afraid of contact.
Although Daniel Bituli led the team in tackles (8), of all the linebackers, I was most impressed with Sapp. Considering what happened two weeks ago, all the noise behind the scenes previously and his health … for Sapp to play like that speaks highly of both the player and the staff to let bygones be bygones. ... Lastly, I'm not sure what the final count was but Tennessee had to miss north of 10 tackles.
7. While Tennessee showed progress defensively, any kudos to the offense should remain faint.
If at all.
During his coach’s show, Pruitt summed it up perfectly after watching another negative play, “I don’t really understand this just looking at it.”
The Vols didn’t cross midfield until a personal foul play by Georgia in the third quarter. They gained three first downs in the first half — one of which came on the opening play of the game.
Somehow Ty Chandler, the only legitimate playmaker in space on the team, touched the football just 11 times, gaining nearly 40 percent (79 total yards) of Tennessee’s yardage (209) against the Bulldogs.
At this point, this is the offense. After five games there’s no reason to expect anything different. The Vanilla Vols seem here to stay.
The real concern is that if this is the offense … even a pair of 5-star freshman offensive tackles in 2019 won’t suddenly flip the script and make it a dynamo.
Tennessee is way too predictable and easy to defend right now — from its run looks, to its motions on end arounds and obvious swing passes. After a watching another loss on a throw out wide, Pruitt remarked on his show, “I’m not really fired up about passes that go -2 yards.”
8. Now, another problem is offense isn’t executing when plays are there to be made.
Jarrett Guarantano had a pair of incompletions that clearly frustrated Pruitt on the rewatch, as he noted that Georgia had completed the very same pass against his defense (specially a poorly thrown out-route to Brandon Johnson).
His quote: "You notice in the game: They run the same play, same route. We had the same coverage. They complete it for six yards and we throw it incomplete. There’s a difference in execution."
That’s not on Tyson Helton.
But the issues on 3rd down (2 of 10 on Saturday and now No. 98 nationally) and the lack of play-calling rhythm most certainly are on Tennessee’s $1.2 million dollar man.
9. The touchdown to Josh Palmer was perfectly designed and executed, but those moments are too fleeting.
It was nice to see all the window dressing work for once, though.
The Vols lined up in a standard formation before exploding to empty, creating a mismatch on the right side. Georgia was set to blitz but checked out of the call, only freshman cornerback Tyson Campbell blew an assignment, leaving Palmer 1-on-1 with a run-first linebacker. Guarantano made a perfect pass and it was an easy touchdown.
Perhaps Tennessee should try more of that.
Yesterday, Pruitt said, “Georgia can run the football when you know they’re going to run it.”
Clearly that’s what the Vols want to become, too, but they’re not that right now.
Tennessee averaged 2.64 yards per carry against Georgia. Pruitt wants to be physical and downhill. But that only works when you can actually run on standard downs. Tennessee can’t.
After all the offseason talk about a fullback and two tight ends being a part of Tennessee’s offense again, ironically, with the way the roster is currently constructed the offense’s best path to success in 2018 might be utilizing a West Coast quick-game and then run from the spread.
The staff is clearly concerned with pass protection (two sacks, multiples hits and other pressures) and Guarantano has his limitations (namely he telegraphs throws and doesn’t go through is progressions effectively) but after five games inefficiently trying to run the ball, Tennessee needs to try something else offensively.
10. A couple final quick-hitting thoughts on individuals: Rough, rough game for Dominick Wood-Anderson. He made a key block on Chandler’s touchdown, but after that … insert the scary emoji. Also Tennessee still hasn’t completed a pass to DWA when it shifts the tight end out wide in empty. …
It was another tough game for Trey Smith. It started on the opening two series, too. He didn’t block anybody on the first end around and got pushed back on the failed 3rd-and-1 run by Madre London. The sophomore is clearly banged up right now and the bye week is probably coming at a good time for him. …
11. After all the background scuttle about K’Rojhn Calbert throughout the week, the redshirt freshman didn’t play a snap Saturday.