Jarrett Guarantano was efficient, the offensive line controlling and the dynamic duo was, well, dynamic.
Tennessee delivered a solid performance in its latest home opening start since 1962, handling an outmanned Missouri team 35-12 at Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Tennessee is 2-0 in SEC for the first time since 2016 and the third time since 1998. UT has also won six SEC games in a row for the first time since 2000.
Guarantano, who struggled with accuracy in the Vols’ season opener, was 14 of 23 passing for 190 yards and one touchdown as he engineered scoring drives of 75, 65, 75, 92 and 47 yards.
“He’s continuing to work hard to put us in the right plays,” Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “We put a lot on him and he can handle it.
“There were only three times in the game I didn’t feel like Jarrett probably made the right read. That’s three out of 76 (plays).”
Tennessee’s much hyped offensive line lived up to its billing, creating creases for Tennessee’s running backs and helping the Vols go four-for-four on fourth down.. Georgia transfer Cade mays, ruled eligible earlier in the week, got the start at right tackle and also played right guard and left tackle. He made a few clearing blocks, sometimes when he pulled.
Pruitt was reluctant to heap too much praise on Mays or the offensive line until he views film. But he did explain why UT is playing so many linemen.
“We’ve got guys that quarantined for multiple weeks so we’re not in shape to play an entire game,” Pruitt said. “Also, we feel like we’ve got a lot of guys that deserve to play.”
Due to the pandemic, Pruitt said he might not have all of his offensive linemen for a given game “so you better be able to mix and match.”
Tennessee scored touchdowns on five of its eight not-trying-to-run-out-the-clock possessions, a rate any coach would love.
Much of that success was due to the offensive line, making all four fourth-down ties and converting six-of-13 third downs.
It was also a credit to running backs Ty Chandler and Eric Gray, who might comprise the best tandem in the SEC.
Name a better twosome?
Gray said before the season they were a “dynamic duo.” They played like it against Missouri.
Chandler had 90 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown.
Gray had 105 yards on 16 carries, caught a touchdown pass and scored twice.
“I think Eric Gray and Ty Chandler are on of the best duos in college football,” Guarantano said.
Tennessee pounded Missouri for 232 yards on 51 carries.
“The first part of being good in the run game is you gotta do it, you gotta establish the run,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt was particularly pleased with UT’s fourth down efficiency. He even rolled the dice and went for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 34-yard-line on the first possession of the game.
“It’s a mindset,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt pointed out his players and staff have fought through the pandemic for months and are forging ahead.
“We’re not living in fear,” he said. “We’re sure not going to play in fear or coach in fear.”
Guarantano was effective on four quarterback sneaks, scoring two touchdowns and converting twice for a first down.
Does Guarantano have the freedom to check to the sneaks?
“No,” Pruitt said, perhaps remembering the debacle at Alabama last season. “We call the plays from up top (press box).”
Tennessee was also five-for-five in the red zone, scoring each time the Vols penetrated Missouri’s 20-yard line.
That’s in stark contrast to UT’s struggles last year.
“That was an emphasis this year,” Guarantano said. “We were one of the worst teams in the country last year.”
As the Vols prepare of next week’s game at Georgia, Pruitt was asked what he has learned about his team.
“We have a bunch of guys that are winners, good kids, good men that work hard,” Pruitt said. “They’ve got an edge and are doing the right things and competing. I love coaching these guys.”
Are the Vols ready to compete with Georgia?
“Absolutely,” Pruitt said. “They’ve got good players. They’ve got good coaches. But we do, too.”