By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
There’s no sugarcoating it. Tennessee’s loss to Georgia State on Saturday is one of the worst in the history of the program. Not only did the Panthers manhandle Tennessee and come away with a win in Neyland Stadium, but Tennessee paid Georgia State $950,000 to do it.
At no point in the second half did Tennessee appear to be in control of the game despite several big plays that seemingly gave the Vols momentum. Tennessee overcame an early fumble with back-to-back touchdowns, but the Vols never had more than a seven-point lead and trailed by as much as 15 in Saturday’s 38-30 loss.
Saturday marked the beginning of Georgia State’s 10th football season in program history. The Panthers moved up from the FCS in 2013 and went 1-23 in their first two years in the FBS. Georgia State has made two bowl games since, but went 2-10 last year with one of the worst defenses in college football.
There have been some tough losses over the years, but it’s been a while since Tennessee lost to an underdog like this so early in the season. The Wyoming loss in 2008 came in November after it had already been announced that Phillip Fulmer wouldn’t be returning the following season.
The loss to Memphis in 1996 was also in November and Tennessee still went 10-2 that year. Tennessee’s loss to Rutgers in 1979 was in November as well and the 21-14 loss to North Texas State came in late October. Both of those Tennessee teams in ’75 and ’79 went 7-5.
But how does a team with so much hope for a 7-5, potentially 8-4 season in Jeremy Pruitt’s second year respond to the type of loss that can deflate a season before it really gets started? Fixing play along the line of scrimmage would be a good place to start, but Pruitt didn’t seem convinced after the loss that he was any closer to finding five guys on the offensive line that were clear starters.
With eleven games still to play, here are some talking points to move forward with following Georgia State.
Jauan Jennings is happy to be back on the field
The senior wide receiver reeled in seven receptions for 108 yards and a late touchdown catch from Jarrett Guarantano. Jennings was difficult to bring down after the catch and Georgia State couldn’t seem to find a way to stop him in man coverage. Several of his receptions came downfield over the middle and utilizing him in the short, quick passing game worked well.
Believe Jim Chaney will find a way to get Jennings the football more. Jennings’ career-high for receptions in a season is 40. He could shatter that number if he stays healthy.
Tennessee could have a big 1-2 punch with Chandler and Gray
…If the blocking gets better anyway. Ty Chandler averaged eight yards per carry, but only had seven touches combined on the day. That’s not nearly enough. More plays need to be designed to get him the football. Tennessee’s offensive line may have had a little to do with that, but getting Chandler more involved with the offense is key to Tennessee bouncing back from Saturday’s loss.
Eric Gray averaged over four yards per carry in his college debut and caught six passes out of the backfield for 51 yards. Gray showed some shiftiness in carrying the football and didn’t seem afraid of contact.
Where the offensive line comes in is huge. A couple of those passes to Gray were forced early by the lack of protection and Chandler’s long touchdown run occurred despite a missed blocking assignment on the edge. Chandler simply used his speed to get through the hole quickly enough so it didn’t matter. Having those weapons could be fun to watch by season’s end.
Special Teams continues to be special
Marquez Callaway nearly lost a fumble at the end of a long punt return, but he still gave Tennessee great field position when the Vols needed it. Ty Chandler had a solid kick return and continues to be a threat for opposing coverage units.
Joe Doyle’s only punt went for 47 yards without a return, Paxton Brooks repeatedly sent kickoffs through the end zone and Brent Cimaglia went 3-for-3 on field goals, including a 48-yard bomb that looked like it would’ve been good from 55. Can’t put too much blame here.
Henry To’oto’o looks the part
The freshman linebacker led Tennessee with seven tackles along with Will Ignot. He was quick to the ball and looked comfortable out on the field. A one-game sample size against Georgia State isn’t enough to crown him as an All-American, but there wasn’t anything to suggest he isn’t the player he’s been hyped up to be since arriving in Knoxville.
Where was Darrell Taylor?
Tennessee’s best edge rusher didn’t have a presence on Saturday with only two tackles. He was banged up midway through the game, but returned later on. He hurried Panthers quarterback Dan Ellington only once.
The same player who had seven combined sacks against two top 15 opponents a year ago couldn’t give the Vols a lift on defense. On third and ten in the second quarter Ellington put Taylor on skates in the backfield to avoid a loss and pick up a gain of nine yards. What would’ve been a punting situation inside Georgia State’s own 30 turned into a fourth and one, which the Panthers converted. Georgia State capped the drive off with a touchdown.
When Georgia State ran a reverse, Taylor stayed put on the perimeter, but couldn’t shake his block and the result was a 15-yard gain. The Panthers scored a touchdown on the next play.
The same Taylor who wreaked havoc in Georgia’s backfield with three sacks and terrorized Kentucky’s Terry Wilson for four more needs to take games over. Especially against inferior opponents. The Vols have too much inexperience along the defensive line for Taylor to be a non-factor and still have success.
Get better on the line of scrimmage
This is a two-way street for Tennessee. The Vols have three offensive linemen who were ranked in the top ten in the ESPN 300 for their respective recruiting classes and return several others who had starting experience.
None of that mattered. Tennessee rushed for only 93 yards on the afternoon and averaged only three yards per attempt. Guarantano was sacked four times and was often forced to bail on the pocket and run or get rid of the ball.
The defensive line couldn’t get a consistent push up front and the linebackers were forced to think run first. Especially considering Ellington had only three completions in the first half. Tennessee’s inability to slow Georgia State’s running game eventually opened up the short pass for the Panthers and they made the Vols pay for it.
Tennessee was also undisciplined in stopping the option. A lot of credit goes to Ellington for that. He showed great awareness on when to keep the ball, pitch it or hand it off, but too often Tennessee overcommitted one way or another and made some of those decisions for Ellington a lot easier.
Finish, finish, finish
And I’m not talking about the country. Tennessee failed to finish drives on both sides of the ball. The Vols couldn’t get a push up front to convert a QB sneak on third and one. The Vols punted and Georgia State drove 81 yards for a touchdown.
Late in the first half, Tennessee ran four plays inside the Georgia State ten-yard line, but settled for a field goal. Guarantano was bailed out on an interception by a pass interference call, which wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the play had there not been contact. A defender undercut the route and Guarantano shouldn’t have thrown the pass. Regardless, the Vols failed to capitalize on the penalty and still managed only three points out of the drive.
After Tennessee got a big momentum boost with a red zone takeaway in the fourth quarter, the Vols went 57 yards in just two plays to get back into red zone themselves. However, Tennessee failed to find the end zone and settled for Cimaglia’s third field goal of the game to take the lead back. Georgia State went 75 yards on the ensuing drive for a touchdown and Tennessee never led again.
On defense Tennessee failed to get off the field time and time again. The Panthers finished 10-for-17 on third down conversions. Ellington’s shake-and-bake on Taylor being one didn’t result in one of those ten, but it did allow Georgia State to convert a fourth down rather than punt it back to Tennessee. Georgia State went on to convert three more third downs on that drive, including two of eight yards or more.
On its five touchdown drives Georgia State converted on third or fourth down a combined nine times. Ouch.
Tennessee (0-1) hosts BYU at Neyland Stadium at 7 o’clock. The Cougars (0-1) fell to BYU 30-12 in the Holy War to Utah last Thursday.