By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
It won’t erase what’s happened the previous two weeks, but Tennessee has its first win. Yes, it was against an FCS opponent in Chattanooga, but for the first time this season the Vols turned in a performance that was expected of them with a 45-0 shutout of the Mocs on Saturday.
Jarrett Gurantano came out of the game halfway through the first quarter, then returned in the second before leaving the game for good late in the first half. Tennessee fans finally got to see J.T. Shrout and Brian Mauer in action. Mauer even ran for a touchdown despite not having a completion.
Fred Orr, James Christian and Chip Omer got involved in the running game. These are things a team typically does against cupcake opponents, but with Tennessee’s first two games nothing feels like it can be taken for granted. The Vols came out quickly in all three phases of the game to essentially guarantee a win for Tennessee less than six and a half minutes into the first quarter.
Chandler took the opening kickoff to the Chattanooga 41-yard line. The Vols scored a touchdown, held Chattanooga to a three and out, blocked the punt and returned it for a touchdown, intercepted a pass three plays later and found the end zone again three more plays after that. Even against the Mocs, Tennessee needed a start like that. It allows for younger players to get on the field and for more exploration with an offense.
The defense didn’t let up. Chattanooga had three red zone possessions and left with a turnover on downs and two turnovers. The Vols forced five takeaways, highlighted by four interceptions, and Tennessee held on for its first shutout since a 24-0 win over UTEP last September.
There’s still a lot of work to be done, but with nine games remaining here are some significant points for Tennessee as it begins SEC play in Gainesville next Saturday.
Tennessee will need its special teams to win games
Whether it’s a big return to help the offense, a game-winning field goal by Brent Cimaglia or a blocked punt to change the momentum, the special teams unit will be needed at some point to give Tennessee an extra boost if it wants to claw out one of those close games later on in the year.
Along with Chandler’s big return, Tyler Byrd blocked a punt that was returned for a score by Brandon Johnson and Byrd tipped another one later in the opening quarter. Cimaglia connected on a 34-yard field goal at the end of the first half and was perfect on extra points.
If Tennessee finds itself in a tight game over the course of the SEC schedule, look at the special teams as an area where the Vols might have an edge against just about anyone.
Guarantano impressive, but…
Jeremy Pruitt stood by Guarantano earlier this week, saying there was no doubt within the program who the best quarterback on the team is. Guarantano nearly threw an interception on his first pass, hanging a deep ball slightly short and Jordan Jones nearly came away with it. Guarantano was perfect the rest of the way, finishing 7-8 for 142 yards and three scores.
The redshirt junior was solid in finding open targets, which is all he really had to do. All seven of his completions were to open receivers. Chattanooga doesn’t have a lot of speed on the perimeter, even for an FCS team. They don’t press a lot on the outside and give a bit of a cushion, even against other FCS schools. Guarantano’s seven completions were as follows:
- A wide open Jauan Jennings in the end zone.
- Marquez Callaway with space underneath on a hitch route.
- Princeton Fant uncovered on a crossing route on a play action fake.
- Callaway open in the end zone after a Chattanooga cornerback slipped.
- Dominick Wood-Anderson open in the flat.
- Josh Palmer creating space on the sideline on a comeback route.
- Cedric Tillman open in the end zone.
Credit to Guarantano for finding the open man consistently, but SEC defenses aren’t going to allow him consistent time to throw and leave receivers running about in the secondary. At times Chattanooga was rushing only three and still couldn’t cover Tennessee.
Still, it’s positive for Guarantano to simply go through his progressions and just deliver the ball where it needs to go.
The quarterback case in Knoxville is officially closed
Mauer and Shrout each made their Tennessee debuts against Chattanooga. Mauer only threw two passes without completing a throw, but he did score a touchdown on a 6-yard run.
Shrout finished 3-9 for 23 yards. His first pass was intercepted after he missed Ramel Keyton high, but the play was called back for roughing the passer. On his first career attempt that counted he severely under threw a wide open Tillman then threw behind Johnson on a seam route on the next play.
Later on the same drive Shrout stayed locked in on Johnson to his left and missed an open receiver to the right side of the field. The pass was broken up and Shrout overthrew Austin Pope in the end zone two plays later to force Tennessee to settle for a red zone field goal.
It’s the first appearance for both teams, but there doesn’t appear to be an argument for anyone except Guarantano to be Tennessee’s starting quarterback.
Ball-hawking defense forcing the issue
Tennessee recovered a fumble thanks to a botched snap by Chattanooga, but the Vols came away with four picks for a total of five takeaways. Jeremy Banks had two interceptions while Nigel Warrior and Kenny Solomon had the other two. Tennessee’s defenders had their heads on swivels and were looking for ways to get the ball back to the offense.
The Vols had one takeaway in their first two games. SEC offenses won’t be as mistake-prone as the one Tennessee faced on Saturday, but the performance against Chattanooga is at least a positive sign that the defense is capable of making a play.
What were you thinking?
Trey Smith received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for hitting a Chattanooga player in the back well after the play had ended. Will Ignot was flagged for swiping a player after the whistle that negated a third down stop. Trevon Flowers pushed a player after the play was over and the Mocs were awarded a first down after another failed third down conversion.
Chattanooga isn’t good enough to take advantage of those mistakes. Florida, Georgia and Alabama are, and they will if Tennessee isn’t disciplined during the conference schedule.
Taking care of business (every way)
Two weeks ago Tennessee was a 26-point favorite against Georgia State. The expectation going in was the Vols would get up early, Guarantano wouldn’t see the second half and the Vols would cruise to a win. Instead Guarantano committed two turnovers, Tennessee never pulled away from the Panthers and the Vols suffered a huge upset to open the season.
On Saturday the Vols were a 28-point favorite against Chattanooga with some skepticism of whether Tennessee would struggle against another inferior opponent even if it won. Instead the Vols jumped out early and derailed the Mocs before Tennessee’s offense took the field for its third possession.
Tennessee forced five turnovers while committing none. It scored 45 points while allowing none. Joe Doyle had as many punts as Byrd had blocks. The game went exactly according to script. Host an inferior opponent and knock them out of the game early. The Vols did that and can try to take away the positives from the win and carry them into the conference schedule.
The Vols head to Florida to take on the Gators Saturday at noon. Tennessee has three wins in The Swamp in the last half-century and hasn’t won in Gainesville since 2003.