Silverberg: Takeaways from Tennessee’s bowl win over Indiana

Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. PHOTO: WNML staff.

By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg

It was boring. Then it was catastrophic. Then it was emphatic. Then it was relief.

Whatever you’d call it, it’s a win. A 23-22 win in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl to be exact. Tennessee rallied from a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter, watched Indiana miss a potential go-ahead field goal sail wide right and made one last defensive stop in the waning seconds to preserve the program’s first bowl victory since the 2016 Music City Bowl.

After Tennessee missed some early red zone opportunities, the Hoosiers finally got going offensively with Peyton Ramsey engineering a long drive for the game’s first touchdown and Indiana’s first lead of the game.

Jarrett Guarantano threw a pick six on Tennessee’s following possession and the Vols found themselves in a 16-6 hole. Trading field goals ultimately gave the Hoosiers a 22-9 lead with 10:27 remaining in the game. The Vols scored two touchdowns in 30 seconds to complete the comeback and held on to win after some late-game theatrics.

After Tennessee’s go-ahead score, Indiana took over from its own 25. Ramsey found Ty Fryfogle for a 39-yard pass down the right sideline. Facing third and long at Tennessee’s 45, Ramsey scrambled in an effort to get close for a potential game-winning kick. Surrounded by defenders, Ramsey suddenly pitched the ball to Sampson James, who took it up the field to the Tennessee 34. That set up a 52-yard field goal attempt from Indiana’s Logan Justus. Justus, who missed an extra point earlier in the game, hooked the kick to the right.

Tennessee got the ball back and in an effort to run out the clock sent Jauan Jennings out in the wildcat package to pick up a first down on third and six. Jennings bulled ahead and broke a tackle for what was initially ruled a first down, but replay review ruled Jennings was short of the line to gain, bringing up fourth down and inches.

Jeremy Pruitt kept his offense on the field. It’s unclear if the Vols were going to attempt to run a play or try to draw Indiana offsides, but the play was blown dead when center Brandon Kennedy moved the ball forward before the snap, resulting in a penalty and stopping the clock.

Indiana took over at its own 19-yard line with 48 seconds left. A pair of completions gave Indiana a first down at the Tennessee 45. The Volunteers defense stifled Indiana on four consecutive plays to secure the win.

In a game where the starting quarterback was benched, re-entered the game, and led a fourth quarter comeback, Tennessee’s final act to the 2019 season was nothing short of memorable.

It wasn’t pretty, and Pruitt is likely the first to admit that, but Tennessee will enjoy this one heading into a very important offseason.

With the season officially in the books, here are some thoughts on Thursday night’s win and some things to pay attention to in 2020.

The red zone offense needs to improve

Tennessee outgained Indiana 202-69 in the first half. The Hoosiers’ only scoring drive started on Tennessee’s side of the field and wasn’t without some clock mismanagement at the end. The Vols were averaging 5.8 yards per play to Indiana’s 2.1, yet only held a 6-3 lead at the break.

Entering Thursday night’s game, Indiana had given up a touchdown on two-thirds of opponents’ red zone trips. The Volunteers didn’t reach the end zone once on three drives inside the Indiana 15-yard line and settled for a turnover on downs and a pair of field goals.

The red zone offense was an issue for Tennessee all season, even during the second half of the year when the Volunteers won their last five games. The struggles with the running game contributed to the problem, but with big targets like Marquez Callaway, Jennings and Dominick Wood-Anderson available, a 50% touchdown rate on red zone trips is tough to swallow.

Tennessee notched a pair of red zone touchdowns with its fourth quarter rally, but the first half performance is a representation of what the Vols dealt with for most of the year. Regardless of talent or player development, it’s tough to win big games consistently if an offense perpetually struggles in the red zone. Just ask Ohio State.

Guarantano somehow reverted to his September form

Tennessee isn’t winning its last five games to finish 7-5 without Guarantano. That’s inarguable. He deserves a lot of credit for helping lead Tennessee’s turnaround to become bowl eligible this season, but Thursday night looked more like how he was playing in September rather than the second half of the year.

On Tennessee’s fourth down attempt in the first quarter Guarantano looked to his left and tried to hit Wood-Anderson in the corner of the end zone, but the pass fell incomplete.

Ramel Keyton is coming open over the middle of the field, but the pass rush is in Guarantano’s face too quickly to make that an option. Plus, Guarantano is looking to his left from the snap. When the corner starts to follow the running back into the flat there’s a window for Guarantano to fire the ball into, but he holds the ball to long and the cornerback closes the opening.

Guarantano is forced to loft the ball into the corner with two defenders covering the tight end and he runs out of real estate. The defenders can’t make a play on the ball, but they don’t have to. Their positioning alone gives Wood-Anderson little to no room to work with to make the catch. The pass falls incomplete and Tennessee comes away with no points on its first red zone trip.

In the third quarter following Indiana’s first touchdown of the game, Guarantano tried to find Jennings to the outside. There’s a defensive back over the top of Jennings and another defender trailing him. Guarantano has room to the outside if he leads Jennings to the sideline, but he misses the throw and the result is a disaster.

The decision itself isn’t terrible. Jennings has a step on the defender and as long as the throw leads him further to the sideline, the worst possible outcome is an incompletion. Instead Guarantano puts the ball in the one place he can’t afford to. The pass is behind his receiver, who can’t come back to the ball with the defender undercutting the route and Jamar Johnson takes it 63 yards for a pick six.

Credit to Guarantano for leading the comeback and not forcing anything on the two touchdown drives, but digging into a 13-point fourth quarter hole after throwing two picks can’t happen if Tennessee’s hoping to progress in 2020.

Eric Gray should see a bigger role next season

The freshman running back averaged more than six yards per carry and showed some zip on this first half run that led to a Tennessee field goal.

There’s nothing fancy about this move. It’s not a juke and there’s no spin move. It’s a simple cut to get around a defender and Gray’s second gear nearly leaves everyone in the dust. On a night where Ty Chandler was struggling to get going (12 carries for 35 yards), Gray’s playmaking ability helped Tennessee all over the field.

Gray had two receptions out of the backfield for 34 yards to spark Tennessee’s first touchdown drive. Then he perfectly timed the recovery of Paxton Brooks’ ensuing onside kick. Three plays later he charged 16 yards for the game-winning touchdown. He finished with 14 attempts for 86 yards.

It was just the third time this season Gray had double-digit carries, but in his last two games he totaled 332 yards on the ground, averaged eight and a half yards per attempt and scored four touchdowns. After going through a large portion of the season without a lot of attention, expect Gray to see much more involvement with the offense next year.

Speaking of that onside kick…

Pruitt has been known to roll the dice on special teams every now and then. There’s been a handful of onside kick attempts and Tennessee has come close on several occasions to pulling off the recovery to get the ball back.

What a time for a conversion.

After finally finding the end zone for the first time Thursday night, Pruitt sent Brooks out for an onside kick to try and catch Indiana flatfooted. It worked. The Hoosiers weren’t prepared for the short squib kick and Gray’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect on the recovery.

Indiana only has two players ten yards off the ball. Brooks kicks it to the right, away from the closest Hoosier on the line, No. 81 Gary Cooper. Cooper is late reacting to the play and by the time he catches up to the ball Gray is running by him with the football in his hands.

Three plays later Tennessee took the lead for good. It’s a big time call in a big time moment. If Pruitt truly turns Tennessee’s program around, this play will be remembered fondly by a lot of fans.

What’s next?

Tennessee concludes its season with an 8-5 record and ends the season on a six-game win streak. The coaches will hit the recruiting trail in anticipation of the February signing period to fill out the remainder of the Vols’ 2020 recruiting class.

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