By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
That was fun. And Tennessee hasn’t been able to say that very often.
The Vols got a key win two weeks ago against Mississippi State with a big day from its defense. Tennessee was disciplined and made the key plays when it needed them.
Today was a different kind of performance from the Vols. Tennessee racked up 485 yards of total offense using two different quarterbacks and scored two special teams touchdowns in a 41-21 rout of South Carolina at home on Saturday. The Vols (3-5, 2-3) outscored the Gamecocks 24-0 in the second half and beat South Carolina coach Will Muschamp for the first time.
The Vols were 18-30 passing as a team (19-31, but a Jauan Jennings reverse pass was nullified by a penalty) for 351 yards and three touchdown passes of 48, 19 and 55 yards. Tennessee had zero turnovers against an FBS opponent for the first time this season and committed fewer penalties than it did a week ago against Alabama.
Aside from Ryan Hilinski hitting Shi Smith for a 75-yard touchdown pass on the game’s first play the opening quarter was fairly slow. The offenses picked it up late in the second quarter after Marquez Callaway took a punt return 65 yards for a touchdown to give the Vols their first lead. The two teams went back and forth in the final three and a half minutes with South Carolina taking a 21-17 lead on Tavien Feaster’s one-yard touchdown run with ten seconds remaining.
It looked as if the offenses were going to pace the game in the second half. Tennessee came out with a big pass play to start the third quarter and didn’t take its foot off the gas offensively.
South Carolina couldn’t keep up.
Tennessee put itself in position to score on four of its first five drives of the second half. A missed field goal ended the Vols first drive after the break, but two touchdowns and a 31-yard kick from Brent Cimaglia put Tennessee in front 34-21 with 12:21 left in the fourth quarter.
On the ensuing drive South Carolina (3-5, 2-4) went three and out before Daniel Bituli blocked a punt and fell on the football in the end zone to put the Vols up by 20 and all but seal the game for Tennessee.
The Gamecocks went three and out four times in the second half and turned it over on downs on their other three drives of the half.
After a 1-4 start that included losses to Georgia State and BYU, the Vols have won two of their last three, are playing improved football over their last four games and swept two big SEC tossup games against Mississippi State and South Carolina. Talks of a 4-8 season are now changing to expectations of making a bowl game.
Tennessee needs three wins in its last four games against UAB, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt to gain postseason eligibility. After Saturday’s dominating performance there’s no reason the Vols can’t get there.
With two-thirds of the season in the books here are some reflections on Tennessee’s biggest win of the season to date.
Tennessee got creative with the playcalling and it paid off
Jim Chaney started things off by putting Jennings at quarterback in a wildcat package. Jennings carried the ball to the left side for an 11-yard run and a first down. Then J.T. Shrout took the field behind center. He handed off to Ty Chandler, who pitched it back to Jennings on a reverse. Jennings rolled out to his right and fired it downfield to Marquez Callaway in double coverage for a 33-yard completion, but it was called back for Brandon Kennedy being too far downfield.
Jennings was back in the wildcat package two plays later. Shrout threw an incompletion on third down and the drive ended in a punt. It was a fairly entertaining opening drive for Tennessee despite the end result.
Chaney’s playcalling helped Tennessee beat Mississippi State a couple weeks ago by getting creative with a conservative approach that led to the game-sealing touchdown. On Saturday it opened things up in a hurry against South Carolina.
On three of its next four drives, the Vols drove from their own 35 to get on the board with a Cimaglia field goal, went 77 yards in 17 plays before failing to punch the ball in from a yard out, and went 75 yards with two big passes from Jarrett Guarantano to Jennings for a touchdown.
Chaney took a shot downfield to start the second half with Guarantano getting Callaway in one-on-one coverage down the field and hanging a jump ball for a 48-yard reception. Guarantano later threw another touchdown pass to Jennings to give the Vols the lead in the third quarter when Chaney put Jennings on the inside and gave Tennessee a favorable mismatch with Jennings lined up against a safety.
When Guarantano left the game with a hand injury Chaney rotated Jennings back into the wildcat package and let Shrout take a shot downfield where he found Callaway for a 55-yard score. Two drives later Shrout hit Jennings on a corner route for a 37-yard gain that set up Cimaglia’s second field goal.
Chaney opened up the playbook and Tennessee looked sharp offensively regardless of who was in at quarterback. The plan was to use Guarantano more despite Shrout getting on the field first, but credit to Shrout for his play and to the coaching staff for having Shrout prepared in case the Vols needed him.
Tennessee put its best players in position to make plays
Both Guarantano and Shrout kept looking for Jennings, who finished with seven catches for 148 yards and two scores. The first was a 48-yard catch and run where Jennings broke a couple of defenders on his way to the end zone and the second was a 19-yard reception on third and 14 following a missed facemask penalty against South Carolina.
Jennings also had five carries out of the wildcat formation for 18 yards. He has 42 catches on the season for 652 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s on pace for 63 receptions this season in the regular season alone. Tennessee hasn’t had a 60-catch receiver since Justin Hunter hauled in 73 receptions in 2012.
Elsewhere Guarantano had missed on several big plays in the passing game this year, but Chaney set Guarantano up for success on this play to Callaway to start the second half.
Jarrett Guarantano has missed some deep throws this year, but I love the way he hung this ball up for Marquez Callaway to make a play.
Guarantano doesn’t try to do too much. He sees he has his big receiver one-on-one and lets him do the rest. pic.twitter.com/i082k8ml9j
— Joel Silverberg (@JoelSilverberg) October 27, 2019
Tennessee utilizes the play fake and Callaway gets into a one-on-one matchup down the field with no safety help for the corner. Guarantano doesn’t try to lead Callaway for a big play, but instead hangs it up for a jump ball, which Callaway comes down with easily.
These sort of throws don’t need to be perfect. They just need to give the receiver enough time to come back to the ball and fight for the catch. Guarantano doesn’t try to do too much and Callaway reels in the catch for a 48-yard gain.
Shrout hit Callaway on a similar play later in the quarter for a 55-yard touchdown. Shrout put more air under ball and was able to hit the receiver in stride away from the trailing cornerback. He also connected with Jennings on a 37-yard corner route in the fourth quarter to set up a field goal.
Tennessee’s quarterbacks have struggled at times this year. Chaney put more responsibility on the receivers to go get the football and the result was Tennessee throwing it around the yard like a Big 12 team.
On defense it was more of the same. Tennessee put South Carolina in obvious passing downs throughout the afternoon and Darrell Taylor came up with a pair of sacks and batted two passes down at the line of scrimmage, including one on a fourth down attempt that got Tennessee the ball back.
Nigel Warrior shook off taking a bad angle on the Gamecocks’ opening touchdown and made a couple of nice open field tackles and was good in pass protection. Bituli was all over the field, racking up ten tackles in the first half alone to go along with his big special teams play. The Vols defense didn’t have a takeaway, but I’m sure Jeremy Pruitt will accept his defense pitching a shutout in the second half.
The biggest names on the team made the biggest plays of the day, and in the end South Carolina couldn’t keep up with Tennessee. Leaders made things happen for the Vols. More of that over the last month of the season and the Vols will go bowling.
The secondary didn’t start well, but finished strong
Jaylen McCollough and Warrior had some miscommunication in the back end and Hilinski made the Vols pay for it early to give South Carolina a 7-0 lead after one offensive play. The Gamecocks took advantage of a short field and a targeting call against Darel Middleton to score their second touchdown of the game, and drove 75 yards on 11 plays to retake the lead right before the end of the first half. Hilinski was 5-6 on that last drive for 62 yards, 18 of which came on an incredible one-handed catch by Bryan Edwards.
It seemed like South Carolina was going to be able to make plays in the second half to keep the game interesting. Especially after Tennessee failed to get points on its opening drive of the third quarter. But the Vols made adjustments and stymied Hilinski and South Carolina’s offense for the final 30 minutes with relative ease.
The secondary settled down after halftime and got a boost from the front seven. Shawn Shamburger came up and made some good plays in run support and broke up a pass as well. Eventually Hilinski started forcing the issue and ended up missing throws as South Carolina’s offense unraveled.
The culture is noticeably different in Knoxville this season
Last year Tennessee played hard in a loss to Georgia and turned some positive things from that loss into a big road win against Auburn. The Vols later got another big win against Kentucky at home to get to five wins with two weeks remaining in the season.
We all know what happened next. Tennessee got blown out by Missouri and Vanderbilt. Where was the motivation to get that sixth win and make a bowl game? Where was the pride in defending the home field against Missouri or playing for bowl eligibility against Vanderbilt? We’ll never know, but after the last four weeks it looks like Tennessee’s heading in a different direction this season.
The Vols started 1-4 with an upset loss to Georgia State, a heartbreaker to BYU and a pair of beatings from rivals Florida and Georgia. The Vols have since beaten Mississippi State by shutting down Kylin Hill, shown some fight in a scrappy loss to Alabama and blown out South Carolina by 20.
If that’s the product Tennessee puts out on the field in the month of November it’s hard not to see the Vols reaching six wins. If they don’t, it won’t look anything like 2018 where Tennessee flatlined following the Kentucky win. Keep in mind Tennessee is 3-5 for a reason and the margin for error is still small, but all four of those games look significantly more winnable than they did three weeks ago.
Tennessee hosts UAB next Saturday at 7 P.M. at Neyland Stadium. The Blazers are 6-1 and coming off a bye, but the best team they’ve played is a 5-3 Western Kentucky team, which beat UAB in September. That’s also the only team UAB has faced all year with a winning record.