Silverberg: Vols eyeing a bowl bid after rallying in Lexington

Tennessee wide receiver Marquez Callaway. PHOTO: WNML staff.

By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg

It wasn’t as pretty as a season ago, but Tennessee has win No. 5.

12 months ago the Volunteers contained Kentucky’s NFL-bound running back Benny Snell, hit a big Hail Mary touchdown pass to Marquez Callaway right before the half and controlled the game from the start in a 24-7 win over the 12th ranked Wildcats.

On Saturday Tennessee needed to erase an early two-score deficit after a long opening drive Kentucky followed by a blocked punt that led to Kentucky’s second touchdown two plays later. A blocked extra point kept the score 13-0, which proved to be huge as the Wildcats would need a touchdown rather than a field goal in the second half once the Vols rallied to take a 17-13 lead that held up behind a handful of stops by the defense.

As he has in each of Tennessee’s FBS wins this season, Jarrett Guarantano came off the bench and played well to put the Volunteers in position to win. He did it on Saturday by throwing a pair of touchdown passes to Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer in the third quarter to put Tennessee ahead for good.

Guarantano finished 7-8 for 115 yards and two touchdowns, and was also Tennessee’s leading rusher with 30 yards on six carries, including an 11-yard scramble on a third and ten that kept the first touchdown drive alive and a ten-yard run on a third and four at Tennessee’s own eight-yard line that gave the Vols a first down and put the game on ice.

That came after a missed handoff between Guarantano and Ty Chandler resulted in a fumble recovered by Kentucky that gave the Wildcats the football and new life at the Tennessee 45 with 7:44 remaining.

The Wildcats drove down the field, running clock the whole way, and set themselves up with first and goal at the Tennessee 6 needing a touchdown to retake the lead.

A pair of two-yard runs made it third and goal at the two-yard line. Tennessee called a timeout before the third down play, then the Vols came out of the timeout with 12 men on the field, putting the ball at the one. Henry To’oto’o stuffed Christopher Rodriguez Jr. for a one-yard loss to bring up fourth down.

On fourth down Kentucky quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr., who led all rushers with 114 yards on the ground, ran a speed option to his right. He faked a pitch to Rodriguez to get Nigel Warrior to cover the outside, but Daniel Bituli stayed home and wrapped up Bowden short of the goal line for his game-high 19th tackle to give Tennessee the ball back.

“Daniel is smart, tough and dependable,” Jeremy Pruitt said after the game. “He loves Tennessee. He’s a great teammate and leader. He’s instinctive. You want everyone to be like him.”

After going up by 13, Kentucky had five possessions inside Tennessee’s 40-yard line and came away with zero points.

“We had some good tackles there at the goal line,” Pruitt said. “I’d be very disappointed if we didn’t stop it. They weren’t going to throw it and we had more than they could block.”

Kentucky’s offense was on the field for more than 41 minutes of game time, but Tennessee’s defense never blinked after the first two drives of the game. The Vols made fourth down stops on Kentucky’s final three drives of the game, forced a punt at their own 40 late in the first half after stopping Bowden on third and short, and picked off Bowden in the second quarter on first and ten at the Tennessee 37.

Kentucky didn’t squander opportunities. Tennessee took them away. That’s Jeremy Pruitt football.

With Tennessee halfway through its November schedule, here are some more notes from Saturday’s win in Lexington.

Callaway wins the jump balls

Callaway didn’t come up with the Hail Mary attempt at the end of the first half this year, but he’ll likely stay in the nightmares of Kentucky fans (and defensive backs) after catching four balls for 103 yards and Guarantano’s first touchdown pass of the night.

Three of his four receptions were essentially jump balls. Callaway was a mismatch for Kentucky defenders all night. He has the hands to turn 50-50 balls into 60-40 balls and his size allows him to outmuscle most corners and shield the ball away from them.

He only has 22 catches on the season, but Callaway is seventh in the nation in yards per catch, averaging 22.1 yards on the year, which also leads the SEC.

Jauan Jennings has been Tennessee’s guy all year and deservedly so, and Josh Palmer’s touchdown grab later on in the third quarter was spectacular, but Callaway had his night among Tennessee’s receiving group on Saturday.

A bowl should be an expectation at this point

For the second season in a row, Tennessee has beaten its border rival to give itself two chances to go bowling for the first time in three years. Missouri and Vanderbilt close out the schedule again, but this year the Vols have a bye week before visiting the Tigers in Columbia.

Last season Tennessee was blown out by Missouri at home 50-17 on Senior Day and fell to Vanderbilt 38-13 in Nashville with both teams needing a win to go to a bowl.

This year the Tigers don’t have quarterback Drew Lock and Vanderbilt won’t be fighting for the postseason after taking its seventh loss of the season via a 56-0 beatdown from Florida.

Missouri has lost three straight after a shutout loss to Georgia in Athens. The Tigers were without quarterback Kelly Bryant and leading receiver Johnathon Johnson on Saturday. Bryant was originally deemed a game time decision with a hamstring issue and Johnson missed the Georgia game with an illness.

Missouri is 0-4 on the road, but 5-0 at home. That’s likely to change next Saturday when the Tigers host Florida, especially if Bryant doesn’t play. If Bryant is back in two weeks the game is more winnable for Tennessee than it appeared to be in September, but it’s still not a gimme.

Vanderbilt fell to 2-7 after the loss to Florida and can only play the role of spoiler for the rest of the month. It would love to do just that in Knoxville at the end of the season. Tennessee is playing better football and will be the better team going into that game.

At this point, there’s no excuse for Tennessee’s season to end before December. A 5-7 record would be an unjustifiable disappointment for the Pruitt in his second season.

Guarantano continues his big turnaround

Along with Tennessee turning its season around as a whole, Guarantano has taken a similar path in getting back on track to where the coaching staff thought he would be as a quarterback.

His turnovers against Georgia State and BYU hurt Tennessee in those two early losses. He didn’t play well against Florida and was benched at halftime before losing the starting job to Brian Maurer. Then there was the mishap on the goal line against Alabama. Guarantano’s earned a fair share of criticism for his mistakes, but since then he’s helped Tennessee shift gears on its season.

Against Mississippi State he came in relief of Maurer and led a game-sealing touchdown drive that ended with him throwing a touchdown pass to Tyler Byrd. He rebounded from the Alabama game and played well against South Carolina to help Tennessee get its first win over Will Muschamp. He was brought in early against UAB as Tennessee coasted to a win and entered the game on Saturday in the second half with Tennessee down by ten. His two touchdown passes put the Vols back in front.

Guarantano hasn’t officially started a game since September, but he’s played a sizable role in Tennessee’s four wins since then.

It’s developing into a nice story for a player who underperformed so greatly during the first month of the season. The mistakes Guarantano never seemed to make last season piled up quickly over the first half of the year. Losing the starting job as a fourth-year player to a true freshman is rough. Getting booed by the home fans just for trotting onto the field for a single play is worse.

Guarantano has pushed all of that aside, and he’s helped Tennessee turn its season from looking at four wins total to potentially four wins in the month of November alone.

What’s next?

Tennessee has a week off before visiting Missouri. The Tigers could be sliding on a four-game skid by the time the Volunteers arrive in Columbia. Missouri has lost three straight already and hosts No. 10 Florida next Saturday.

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