By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
Much like Charlotte last season or Southern Miss the year before, Tennessee’s late non conference game wasn’t pretty, but followed a simple formula. Show up, don’t make big mistakes, stay solid defensively and get out with a win.
Tennessee did just that on Saturday night with a 30-7 win over UAB to help the Volunteers (4-5, 2-3) improve to 5-0 all-time against the Blazers.
Surely there will be things Jeremy Pruitt will nitpick despite the result. Tennessee started five drives in the first half on UAB’s side of the field, but only came away with two touchdowns. The Vols had scoring drives of one and negative five yards that led to two of Brent Cimaglia’s three first half field goals. Tennessee’s final drive of the second quarter ended with Jarrett Guarantano getting intercepted trying to force a pass into the end zone.
The Vols led 23-0 at the half.
Sure, no major mistakes that would’ve given the Blazers (6-2, 3-1) life heading into the second half, but Pruitt indicated after the South Carolina win there were things he wasn’t happy about despite his team beating Will Muschamp for the first time in a 20-point rout. There’s a standard Pruitt is trying to set at Tennessee and he believes little mistakes against UAB will pile up to be big mistakes against the Alabamas and Georgias of the SEC.
Despite some missed opportunities in the first half, the Vols didn’t get too complacent. Facing third and long in the red zone late in the third quarter, Jim Chaney drew up a nice play to get Eric Gray open out of the backfield for a 13-yard touchdown pass.
3rd & 10 in the red zone. Not as much space to work with in a passing situation. Really like the call to slip Gray out of the backfield here. pic.twitter.com/2BPkNnhzF7
— Joel Silverberg (@JoelSilverberg) November 3, 2019
It’s a nice concept. The Vols line up in trips to the right. UAB is in man coverage. The left side of the field is empty. Austin Pope runs up the seam and occupies the linebacker and by the time the next closest defender sees Gray slipping off to the left side it’s too late.
Tennessee coasted to victory through an uneventful fourth quarter. Though local product Dylan Hopkins out of Maryville High School spoiled the shutout with a 15-yard touchdown pass with 2:35 remaining to get the Blazers on the board. It was Hopkins’ first collegiate touchdown.
The Volunteers are three-fourths of the way through the regular season. Two wins in its final three games and Tennessee is going bowling for the first time since 2016. With a big turnaround still on the table, here are some tidbits from Saturday night’s win over UAB.
Have yourself a night, Bryce Thompson
The sophomore started off the season suspended due to his arrest in August. He missed the first three games of the year before making his debut against Florida. Despite a strong freshman campaign he hadn’t picked off a pass all season through five games this year.
That changed in a hurry.
Thompson intercepted Tyler Johnston on the first play from scrimmage. Then picked him off again in the second quarter and a third time two drives after that. Thompson tied a school record for interceptions in a single game and is the first Vol to pick off three passes since Deon Grant did it in 1999.
It’s a nice performance for a player from Tennessee’s secondary, which had taken some lumps over the course of the year. It was Tennessee’s fourth game of the season with multiple interceptions after the defense got off to a slow start in the turnover category.
Cimaglia continues to make a name for himself
Names, actually. Plural. My colleague Josh Ward has coined the name “Automaglia,” but credit to Grant Ramey of 247Sports for suggesting “CiLEGmia” during Saturday’s win. Whatever name you decide, you might be calling him a Lou Groza semifinalist soon.
Cimaglia entered Saturday’s game tied for third in the nation with 15 field goals made and second in the country in field goal percentage among kickers with at least 15 attempts. He added three more field goals of 36, 48 and a career long 53 yards on Saturday night.
Now 18-20 on the year, Cimaglia could find himself on the short list for the Groza during the last month of the season. No Tennessee kicker has won the award though Alex Walls was a finalist in 2000.
With four weeks of the regular season remaining, there are still a lot of kickers putting up big numbers around the country. Cimaglia could be in the mix if he continues to be consistent. After Saturday’s performance, he is now 8-9 on field goal attempts of 40 yards or longer.
Jauan Jennings doesn’t care who the opponent is
Whether it’s Alabama or Alabama-Birmingham, Jennings will likely be the toughest competitor on the field.
The wide receiver finished with five receptions for 70 yards and scored on a two-yard run out of the wildcat package. It was a fitting play call for a guy who isn’t afraid of contact. Just tell him to take the snap, lower his shoulder and go full steam ahead. UAB had no chance.
Jennings was relatively quiet in the first half in the passing game, but grabbed a couple of short passes and turned them into big gains to help setup Guarantano’s touchdown pass to Gray. UAB had trouble covering him and eventually he drew a pass interference call when a Blazer defender wrapped him up too early before the pass got there.
Jennings will no doubt be fired up to play against Kentucky next weekend. In last season’s win Jennings finished with just one catch for 11 yards. He’s joked before that Marquez Callaway stole the Hail Mary pass from him in last year’s game right before halftime, but it’s clear Jennings is more focused on getting Tennessee to 5-5 at the Wildcats’ expense for the second consecutive year.
Guarantano better despite red zone mistake
The interception right before halftime was a poor decision, but I think this one was more due to Tennessee having a comfortable cushion and the Vols seemingly doing no wrong through the first 30 minutes of football. It doesn’t justify the throw, but the mistake didn’t exactly help UAB take any momentum into the second half either.
Guarantano probably needs to hit the flat quickly or fade to the boundary here. This is just a tough throw 25 yards downfield off his back foot. pic.twitter.com/D3g2vfcABa
— Joel Silverberg (@JoelSilverberg) November 3, 2019
There’s pressure up the middle, the underneath route is taken away and the flat isn’t open for very long. Guarantano probably needed to either throw the fade to his left side or bail out of the play. Instead he tries to throw the ball up the seam to Tyler Byrd off of his back foot. The pass is underthrown and Byrd doesn’t have a chance.
Outside of that it was a more efficient day for Guarantano, who finished 13-21 for 147 yards, the touchdown to Gray and the pick. Several of his incompletions were safe throws that weren’t in danger of being picked off. Outside of the interception there isn’t much to complain about from a guy who was playing just six days after having surgery on his non-throwing hand.
Guarantano took several big hits on the night upon making throws and was sacked more than once. There was a miscue on a fake draw play that led to a fumble, which Guarantano picked back up before being taken down in the backfield. Other than that it didn’t seem there were any issues caused by the cast and glove Guarantano was wearing on his left hand.
The Vols visit Lexington to take on Kentucky Saturday night at 7:30 P.M. ET. The Wildcats are 4-4 after a win over Missouri last week and will welcome Tennessee after a bye week.