Silverberg: Vols complete unorthodox path to 7-5 finish

Tennessee running back Eric Gray. PHOTO: WNML staff.

By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg

It was about as straightforward as handing the ball off to Eric Gray over and over again.

And that’s exactly what Tennessee did.

After a slow start for the Volunteers that included an interception from Jarrett Guarantano on the Vols’ opening drive followed by a pair of three and outs, Gray broke off a 56-yard touchdown run for Tennessee’s first score of the game.

After Guarantano found Dominick Wood-Anderson for a six-yard score, the Volunteers were backed up on their own six due to an illegal block in the back on a punt return. Gray took a handoff on the first play of the drive and scampered 94 yards for his second touchdown of the first half to give Tennessee a 21-3 lead.

There wasn’t the same bite to this rivalry as there had been over the last three seasons. In 2016, Tennessee was playing for a spot in the Sugar Bowl and lost by 11. A year later it was trying to avoid the first eight-loss season in program history and fell by 18. Last season the Vols had a bowl bid on the line and lost by 25.

Vanderbilt clinched bowl eligibility with the 2016 and ’18 wins. This year the Commodores came limping into Neyland Stadium with a 3-8 record that included a 34-10 loss to UNLV at home. The second scoring run by Gray came with 8:36 left in the second quarter, but there was no feeling of a possible comeback after watching Vanderbilt’s offense over the first quarter and a half.

Tennessee kept feeding its freshman running back and cruised to a 28-10 win over the Commodores on Saturday night. The Vols finished the regular season winning six of its last seven games.

After Guarantano started 0-7 passing with the pick, he wasn’t asked to do too much the rest of the way with Tennessee’s success on the ground. When he was he utilized Wood-Anderson several times. Aside from the touchdown, Guarantano escaped pressure and found Wood-Anderson in the flat for a 14-yard gain and a third down conversion. He also hit him in a soft spot in the secondary for a 25-yard pass up the middle.

After Vanderbilt finally found the end zone to cut the deficit to 21-10, Guarantano hit Marquez Callaway over the middle for 19 yards and connected with Jauan Jennings for a 50-yard catch and run to set up first and goal at Vanderbilt’s three-yard line.

Gray scored from four yards out two plays later for his third rushing score of the game.

Weather conditions probably had a lot to do with Guarantano only throwing 17 passes on the night, but it might’ve happened regardless of rain or shine. Tennessee averaged over seven yards per rushing attempt and Vanderbilt’s offense did nothing to threaten the Vols until a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, which Tennessee responded to with a touchdown drive.

It wasn’t flashy, but Saturday night’s win was what a lot of Tennessee fans wanted to see after losing three straight to their mid-state rivals: push around the little brother and control the game with ease.

Tennessee did that and the Volunteers (7-5, 5-3) completed a turnaround few thought was likely two months ago.

The Vols’ impressive second half to the season continues into the postseason, potentially with a trip to the Sunshine State. Until then, here are some takeaways from Saturday night’s rivalry win in Neyland Stadium.

A historic night for Gray

Gray’s 246 rushing yards are the most by a true freshman in school history and the fifth-most overall. He averaged 9.84 yards per attempt and his 94-yard score was the second longest run for the program ever.

Jeremy Pruitt said after the game that he thought Gray “lost a step” in the middle of the season, but looked more like his old self over the last couple weeks.

It was Gray’s first game having double-digit touches since the BYU game and the first time he had more than 30 rushing yards since Chattanooga. Ty Chandler was the lead back for Tennessee this year and Tim Jordan emerged with a bigger role in October. Chandler missed Saturday night’s game with what Pruitt described as a banged up ankle. That allowed Gray to step up and Pruitt kept riding the hotter back.

In a season where Tennessee struggled to run the ball consistently, even during its five-game win streak, Gray helped Tennessee end the regular season on a high note for the running back group.

Should be a lot of fun next year.

Revisiting some early mistakes

Nothing that happened on Saturday was enough to hurt Tennessee to the point where anyone thought Vanderbilt could threaten the Vols in this game.

Guarantano’s opening interception was followed by a three and out, forcing Vandy to settle for a long field goal. There was contact on the hitch route, but the throw was slightly off target. Guarantano started 0-7 and the offense failed to pick up a first down on its first three possessions, leading to some boos from the Tennessee faithful.

It was a slow start where the weather may have affected the passing game, but the Vols started rolling on drive No. 4. Jordan picked up a first down with a couple of nice runs and Guarantano hit Jennings on a slant for his first completion to convert a third down. Gray ran for a 56-yard score two plays later.

Tennessee scored on each of its next two drives and the end result felt like it was in hand, but the slow start was understandably frustrating.

Also, Kivon Bennett blew up a Vanderbilt punt returner after he called for a fair catch. The penalty put the Commodores on the Tennessee 47 to start the drive, but Vanderbilt did nothing and punted the football away.

Again, not a mistake that would’ve hurt Tennessee on Saturday, but I can’t imagine Pruitt was pleased with Bennett on the play. Especially since that’s not the first time this season Tennessee has hit a returner after a fair catch with Jennings knocking the block off a Florida returner back in September.

What’s next?

Tennessee will have next week off while the conference championships play out. Meanwhile the Vols will prepare for their first bowl game since 2016 when they beat Nebraska in the Music City Bowl. Several bowl predictions have Tennessee potentially going to a bowl game in Florida due to the SEC having several teams in the College Football Playoff / New Year’s Six Bowl mix. Tennessee could slide up into one of those vacancies left by SEC teams playing in other games.

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