Silverberg: Vols in home stretch after loss to Bama

Vols RB Tim Jordan. PHOTO: WNML staff.

By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg

The results aren’t showing in the win column, but Tennessee might really have something going.

Tennessee’s 35-13 loss to Alabama on Saturday night/Sunday morning won’t look like much on paper, but the Vols made it interesting against their second top five opponent in three weeks.

Tennessee only trailed by eight midway through the third quarter and nearly made it a one-score game again midway through the fourth before an inexplicable fumble on a fourth and goal quarterback sneak gone awry sealed the game for Alabama. More on that in a moment.

Freshman quarterback Brian Maurer was knocked out of his third consecutive start again, however. Jarrett Guarantano took over when Maurer left the game after getting pushed down and hitting his head against one of his offensive lineman. Maurer suffered a concussion against Mississippi State last week and was considered a game-time decision for Alabama.

The Crimson Tide also lost quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in the first half with an ankle injury. Mac Jones led the Alabama offense the rest of the way as the team leaned heavily on Najee Harris and the running game. Harris finished with 105 yards and two scores.

Tennessee got some big plays when it needed them. Jauan Jennings overcame an early bobbled pass that led to an interception and finished with six receptions for 66 yards. Marquez Callaway had a 22-yard punt return that set up a field goal and Nigel Warrior’s 59-yard interception return set up the Vols’ lone touchdown of the night.

Penalties were prominent for both teams, each racking up 93 penalty yards. Tennessee’s came on 13 penalties. Alabama’s on eight. A couple of big ones for the Vols were Darrell Taylor being called for unnecessary roughness on Jones after an incompletion on third down. Taylor appeared to push off of Jones while trying to get up. The flag was questionable at best.

Tennessee could’ve still made a stop after the penalty, but that’s a really tough call against Tennessee.

The second came on a Jennings run out of the wildcat formation to the one-yard line to set up second and goal. A holding call against the Vols moved the ball back to the 17 and Tennessee gained two yards on three plays before Brent Cimaglia hit his second field goal of the night.

In the end Alabama closed out the game and walked out of Bryant-Denny Stadium with a secure win. Tennessee was feisty and made it interesting well into the second half. The offense needs to score touchdowns in the red zone instead of field goals, but it’s not as if Tennessee is playing Alabama and Georgia every other week.

Tennessee will probably feel like it let some opportunities slip away in this one. Fans are sick of moral victories, but walking out of Tuscaloosa feeling like a team really left something on the table is significantly better than most 35-point underdogs feel walking out of a rivalry game. Regardless, Tennessee needs to pick itself up quickly. The South Carolina game is huge for both teams.

With five games left in the regular season, here are some takeaways from Tennessee’s trip to Alabama.

Tennessee’s offensive line continues to warrant more credit

There were several mistakes on Saturday night from this group. There were multiple false starts and Tennessee actually committed three penalties on the same play in the second quarter. However, the offensive line was mostly solid on the night. Tennessee actually out rushed Alabama in the first half, mostly in part to this big run by Tim Jordan that set up a Vols field goal.

The blocking up front is great. The offensive line creates the hole, seals it and Jordan busts through and picks up a 33-yard gain. Those big running plays can eventually open up the pass and allow Tennessee to sustain drives. The Vols will need that down the stretch if they hope to make a bowl game.

The Vols avoided big mistakes for three quarters, and then…

With Tennessee trailing by 15 midway through the fourth, Tennessee had first and goal at the Alabama two-yard line. Three run plays were stopped short of the end zone. Then this happened.

It’s another bizarre, catastrophic play to add to a long lowlight reel of Tennessee football over the past decade. It’s a 14-point swing for Alabama and would’ve made it a one-possession game in the fourth quarter and Alabama missing its biggest weapon on offense.

Jeremy Pruitt said after the game the call was a quarterback sneak, but there was “some miscommunication out there” that led to Guarantano being stuffed and the subsequent fumble return for an Alabama touchdown.

The finer details of that miscommunication are what will likely remain unanswered on the record. There is so much wrong with this play beyond just the end result. Check out the aerial view.

If the play call is a sneak, why is Trey Smith pulling? And why do both Quavaris Crouch and Austin Pope start to follow Smith as if…the call wasn’t actually a sneak? Pope takes a full two steps to his left before heading towards the pile. Crouch just stands in the backfield. Why are neither of them pushing the pile? Take that for what you will.

Besides all of that the sneak is poorly executed. Guarantano tries to go over the top. He shouldn’t have. Pruitt said he should’ve tried to push the pile instead of going high. Guarantano is 6’4”. Fall forward between the center and guard or ride the offensive line over the goal line. The ball is inches from the end zone, but being under center behind an offensive lineman sets the quarterback back a yard. It’s more than just a jump and extension of the ball.

Maurer executed a sneak very well for a touchdown earlier in the game. Alabama likely knew that was coming in the fourth quarter, but I’m sure fans will continue to question what the play call truly was.

Beyond the fumble, Guarantano still had an off night

Guarantano finished 7-16 for 55 yards in relief of Maurer. He hit Jennings multiple times over the middle to help Tennessee move the football and put the offense in the red zone. Tennessee just couldn’t close out with touchdowns.

Of Tennessee’s four red zone possessions, the aforementioned holding penalty stalled one, Guarantano’s fumble and Maurer’s touchdown run were two others and the last one resulted in a Cimaglia field goal after this third down pass fell incomplete.

Jennings goes in motion and pulls off a great double move to get free towards the pylon. The offensive line gives great protection in an obvious passing down with the Vols facing third and goal at the 20. Guarantano is able to set his feet. He just misses the throw.

It’s another missed opportunity for a big touchdown pass from Guarantano. There were several of those against BYU in September. But the execution from the rest of the offense is nearly perfect. Tennessee couldn’t have asked for much more with the way the play was set up. Guarantano needs to connect with Jennings and score here. The route gets Jennings wide open in the end zone and the pass protection is too good not to score here.

Tennessee’s defense could win the Vols some games down the stretch

Yes, yes, we know Tua missed most of the game, but the Vols still came up with enough stops on defense to keep this game close in the second half. Jones still had Henry Ruggs III, Jaylen Waddle, Devonta Smith and Jerry Jeudy running around to throw to and Harris still had a strong night on the ground and in the passing game.

Tennessee entered the game as a 35-point underdog. The defense gave up 28 points and made a big 14-point swing early with Warrior’s pick of Tua at the goal line that eventually led to Maurer’s touchdown.

The defensive line chased Tua to his left and he forced a throw into double coverage where Warrior was sitting and waiting for it. Tua never should’ve made the throw, but Tennessee took advantage of it and turned it into points. After a slow start in the turnover category, the Vols defense now has seven takeaways in their last four games.

Looking ahead at Tennessee’s bowl odds

Tennessee closes out the season at home against South Carolina and UAB, a visit to Kentucky, a trip to Missouri after a bye week and then the finale at home against Vanderbilt.

The Vols need to win four of those five to get to a bowl game. South Carolina has played inspired football the past two weeks, going on the road to upset Georgia in Athens and giving Florida all it could handle on Saturday. UAB is a 6-1 Conference USA team that Tennessee should still have more talent than. Tennessee will easily be the toughest team the Blazers have faced all season.

Kentucky has been bitten by the injury bug and has looked lost on offense in its last four games. The Wildcats lost to Mississippi State, were handled with ease by South Carolina, needed a rally to beat Arkansas and were shutout by Georgia on Saturday. Receiver-turned-quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr. has started at quarterback in the last two games as Kentucky tries to figure out what to do at the position.

Missouri looked to be rolling after a season-opening loss to Wyoming, but the Tigers stumbled against Vanderbilt in a 21-14 loss on Saturday. Missouri’s offense could bounce back by then and will likely still be favored against Tennessee at home, but the Tigers look more vulnerable now than they did two weeks ago. Vanderbilt has looked wildly unimpressive outside of Saturday’s surprising win.

The margin of error remains thin for Tennessee, but last year the Vols backed up a big win over Auburn with an embarrassing showing against Alabama. That wasn’t the case this time around. Tennessee followed up it’s home win against Mississippi State with a better performance against the Crimson Tide.

Last season Tennessee lost its bowl hopes with blowout losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt. The past three weeks for Tennessee might suggest this November won’t play out the same way.

What’s next?

The Vols host South Carolina at Neyland Stadium next Saturday at 4 P.M. in a big game for both teams’ postseason hopes. South Carolina has won three straight in the series and the last seven games between these two teams have been decided by six points or fewer. Tennessee has never beaten South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp, who is 7-0 against the Vols combined from his time as the coach at Florida and with the Gamecocks.

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