By Jimmy Hyams
When Ty Chandler was asked earlier this week if an upset loss to Georgia State in the season opener would prevent Tennessee from overlooking Alabama-Birmingham, the Vols’ running back had a simple answer:
Yes sir, indeed. Tennessee kept its eye on the Blazer and kept its improving bowl hopes alive with an easier-than-expected 30-7 victory Saturday night at Neyland Stadium over a 12-point underdog.
UAB was a benevolent guest, throwing three interceptions a losing a fumble in the first half – with three turnovers coming on the initial play of a possession. UT started five of its nine first-half possessions in UAB territory.
Tennessee (4-5) turned those miscues into 20 points as the Vols took a 23-0 halftime lead and coasted to a second win in a row – a first this season.
The Vols allowed a touchdown in the final 2:35 that prevented a second shutout this season. UT had gone seven quarters without allowing a point.
While not an artistic success, UT’s win was efficient. The Vols had just 302 total yards and held UAB to 237 — 63 on the ground.
UAB entered the game with a 6-1 record and the nation’s No. 5 ranked defense, but that was misleading, considered the Blazers played four teams that had no more than one win and a fifth team from the FCS.
But at least Tennessee was focused against a team it was supposed to beat – unlike the opener when Georgia State, a 25-point dog, upended the embarrassed Vols.
Being focused wasn’t the only story line.
The other two were cornerback Bryce Thompson tying a school record with three interceptions – the last to do it was All-American Deon Grant in 1999 — and the play of quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who passed for 147 yards and touchdown less than a week after having surgery on a broken bone in his left (non-throwing) hand.
Both Thompson and Guarantano have overcome significant adversity this season.
Thompson was suspended over allegations of threatening a women and saying he would “shoot up the school.’’ He was reinstated, then charges were dismissed but he missed three weeks of practice and wasn’t sharp when he returned.
A freshman All-American last year, Thompson had his best game by far against UAB.
A week ago, UT’s defense allowed a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first snap.
This time, Thompson picked off an errant pass on the first play and returned it 23 yards to the UAB 19-yard line.
Thompson got a second pick when he jumped a route and a third on a tipped ball by freshman linebacker Henry To’o To’o.
“I told Bryce I tipped it for him,’’ said a smiling To’o To’o.
Thompson agreed: “He can take credit. It wouldn’t have happened without him.’’
UT coach Jeremy Pruitt seemed to downplay Thompson’s exploits.
“He really just done what he was supposed to,’’ Pruitt said.
Thompson’s play was more revered by his teammates.
“He’s elusive,’’ To’o To’o said. “He studies film. He knows what route a receiver will run. He’s a dog.’’
Thompson played while wearing a knee brace.
“I tried to tell myself, mind over matter,’’ Thompson said.
Thompson said sitting out the opening three games hurt.
“It was definitely a learning lesson,’’ Thompson said. “I’m glad to be back on the team with my family.’’
Guarantano was glad he was able to play after suffering the injury in the first half against South Carolina last week. He had surgery Sunday and wore a protective glove that probably led to one fumble exchange.
“It just shows how tough he is,’’ said running back Eric Gray. “I didn’t think he’d play.’’
Guarantano didn’t start. The nod went to redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout, who played one series, threw a pass across his body that fell incomplete and was benched.
UT also sat Brian Maurer, who Pruitt said was cleared after suffering concussions in back to back games. Maurer missed his second game in a row.
Guarantano wasn’t particularly sharp. He completed 13 of 21 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown, but threw an ill-advised end-zone interception off his back foot that drew the ire of the Vols coaching staff.
Still, the fact Guarantano played impressed his teammates.
Offensive lineman Trey Smith, who has overcome recurring blood clots to start this season, tipped his cap to his quarterback.
“It’s a testament to who he is,’’ Smith said.
Guarantano, who didn’t play well at the start of the season and ran the blow-up-in-your-face quarterback sneak against Alabama, said he never doubted himself.
“I was always taught to have unwavering confidence,’’ Guarantano said.
Yet, he recognized his play earlier wasn’t up to snuff, so he fought through pain and numbness in his left hand to help the Vols on Saturday night.
Where was his pain level in a 1-to-10 scale?
“My dad would say a three, my Mom would say an 11,’’ he said. “It’s somewhere in the middle.’’
But there was no middle ground when it came to whether he would play.
“I owed it to my teammates,’’ Guarantano said. “I didn’t like the way I started the season. I think my teammates deserved this from me.’’
And Guarantano deserved a pat on the back from his teammates for a gutsy performance.