By Jimmy Hyams
Tennessee linebacker Darrell Taylor said the defense met Friday night to discuss the upcoming game against South Carolina.
The Vols’ defensive staff asked the seniors to stand up and talk about what it would mean to end a three-game losing streak to South Carolina.
Obviously, it meant a lot.
“Man, it’s really gratifying,’’ said Taylor, who recorded two sacks and broke up two passes as Tennessee routed the Gamecocks 41-21 Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
Safety Nigel Warrior, a senior like Taylor, was tired of hearing that he has never beaten South Carolina.
“We honestly got tired of losing to South Carolina,’’ Warrior said. “We had to get out of the mud.’’
Tennessee was muddled in two losing streaks. It had not only lost three in a row to USC but had lost seven in a row to coach Will Muschamp (he was 4-0 over UT at Florida).
The start was ominous for the Vols. True freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to Shi Smith on the game’s first play.
“We were not paying attention to detail,’’ said Warrior.
Just as importantly, coach Jeremy Pruitt said, “Nobody blinked.’’
Tennessee answered with a field goal, but failed to score on a 17-play, 77-yard drive that ended on the Gamecock 1-yard line. A 65-yard punt return by Marquez Callaway – the third of his career – gave UT a 10-7 first-quarter lead.
The teams traded touchdowns until the Gamecocks scored with 10 seconds left for a 21-17 halftime advantage.
By then, UT had played musical chairs at quarterback, but the results were sound.
Wide receiver Jauan Jennings opened the game in the wildcat formation. True freshman J. T. Shrout was the first quarterback to enter as Brian Maurer sat after having a second concussion in two games.
Jarrett Guarantano, who committed an egregious error at Alabama then took a week’s worth of vicious criticized, performed well in relief. At Alabama, he checked to a quarterback sneak without communicating that to his teammates, then apologized the next day.
You wondered how much trust his teammates had in him.
You wondered how much trust the UT brain-trust had in him.
To his credit, Guarantano bounced back. He hit Jennings on a 48-yard scoring strike in the second quarter. He found Jennings again in the third quarter, but suffered a wrist injury that sidelined him the final 23 minutes of the game.
“He came off the bench and gave us a fantastic spark,’’ Pruitt said.
How did Guarantano rebound?
“I got a couple of good pieces of advice on social media,’’ he said, smiling.
Another spark was provided by Shrout, who was seven of 11 for 122 yards and fired a 55-yard scoring pass to Marquez Callaway to pad the lead to 31-21.
“J.T.’s got really good arm talent,’’ Pruitt said. “I thought he played well in spurts.’’
Asked why he decided to juggle the quarterbacks the way he did, Pruitt said sternly: “I decided because it was the way I wanted to do it.’’
Linebacker Daniel Bituli, who had a game-high 15 tackles, put the final touches on an impressive second-half performance with a blocked punt that he recovered in the end zone with 11:41 left in the game.
Tennessee’s second-half defense was outstanding. The Vols not only pitched a shutout in the final two quarters but held USC to 0-for-9 on third-down conversions.
“We won the fourth quarter,’’ Pruitt said, “which was important.’’
For the game, UT had three sacks, five tackles for loss, seven pass breakups, and five quarterback hurries.
But the bigger story was the quarterback production: 18 of 30 for 351 yards and three touchdowns with scoring passes of 48, 55 and 19 yards. UT also had completions of 48, 37, 27, 26, 22 and 19 yards.
Who in the name of Tua do those guys think they are?
Shrout said the game plan was to run play action and take shots downfield.
It worked magnificently.
No one was more magnificent than Jennings, who broke three tackles on his 48-yard scoring catch.
“Jauan showed out,’’ said Warrior, who was obviously impressed with his you-can’t-tackle-me teammate.
“Jauan went crazy, man,’’ Taylor said. “The man had a day.’’
Offensive lineman Trey Smith needed just one word to describe Jennings: “Dog.’’
We’ll see if UT has enough “dog’’ in it to carry to the momentum against a 6-1 Alabama-Birmingham team that visits Neyland at 7 p.m. this Saturday.
If so, the goal of a bowl might be within reach.