As I watched Tennessee dismantled an undermanned Vanderbilt team Saturday, I was reminded of what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said after a win over a depleted Ravens squad.
“Junior varsity,’’ is how Sumlin described that contest.
With Vanderbilt down to fewer than 50 players, that seemed to apply as Tennessee (3-6) routed the winless Commodores (0-9) in Nashville to record the Vols’ first win in 70 days.
“It just felt like the weight was off everybody’s shoulders,’’ said receiver Velus Jones Jr., who had two touchdown receptions, including a 74-yarder in the fourth quarter. “It was good to see everybody smiling again.’’
Cornerback Bryce Thompson, who recorded a pick six to give the Vols a 14-10 lead in the second quarter, was glad to get the losing streak monkey off UT’s back.
“Nobody likes losing,’’ he said.
Thompson said the losing streak was “definitely frustrating’’ and that “our goal is to win every game.’’
Linebacker Henry To’o To’o, who wreaked havoc on Vanderbilt’s offense, was thrilled with the victory.
“Everybody was happy,’’ he said. “Everybody was smiling. It had been a while since everybody was happy.’’
Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt, who has taken flak from fans over the six-game losing streak, complimented the way his players have worked hard each day in practice and kept their spirits up.
“I’m glad they got rewarded,’’ said Pruitt, now 16-18 after 34 games as UT’s coach.
Here are five things we learned after the Vols’ snapped a six-game losing streak and averted the first seven-game losing skin in program history.
*Harrison Bailey is an accurate passer. Bailey might not have a Brett Favre arm, but he can drop a few dimes. He completed his first 13 passes against Vandy and finished 14 of 18 for 207 yards and two touchdowns.
“He’s been an accurate kid since the first day I met him,’’ Jones said of Bailey, a true freshman from Marietta, Ga.
Pruitt reiterated that Bailey was unable to have a spring practice due to Covid-19 and that he missed the first four days of fall camp due to contact tracing, putting him behind.
Pruitt said Bailey didn’t play earlier because “we didn’t want to put him in a situation where he didn’t have a chance to have success.’’
Bailey had success against Vanderbilt.
We’ll see if he can have success against a much better Texas A&M team Saturday at noon in Knoxville.
* To’o To’o needs more touches. The sophomore linebacker was on the receiving end of a fake punt early in the second quarter and displayed adept running ability by gaining 31 yards. Earlier this season, he retuned an interception for a touchdown against South Carolina.
“I like the ball in my hands,’’ said To’o to’o, who doubled as a running back in high school. “It’s fun. I reverted to my old (high school) days. Ain’t nothing like touching the ball as a defensive guy.’’
To’o To’ said he would give his hands a “10 out of 10.’’
* The Vols’ run defense has improved. Tennessee held Florida to 19 yards on 17 rush attempts. While some scoffed as those numbers because the Gators were averaging about 140 rush yards per game, no other team shut down the Florida run game like that.
UT followed that up by slowing down Vandy’s run game: 53 yards on 31 carries (including sacks).
“For the most part,’’ Pruitt said, “we’ve had a really good run defense.’’
Pruitt said a key was eliminating explosive plays and getting run support from the secondary.
*Tennessee’s pass rush was exceptional. Rarely did Vandy quarterback Kenny Seals have time to throw. He was sacked and harassed most of the game.
“They stayed behind the chains a lot in the game,’’ said Pruitt, meaning Vandy had a lot of second and third and longs. “It’s a lot easier to create pressure if you know they’ll throw the football. The scoreboard dictated that a lot, too.’’
While Pruitt wants more finishes on quarterback hurries, he said “we did affect the quarterback.’’
Seals was 22 of 39 for 239 yards.
*Velus Jones Jr. is a playmaker. Jones was viewed most of this season as a kick returner who could run a speed sweep.
Against Vandy, he was the best receiver on the field. He caught seven passes for 125 yards and scored in the second game in a row.
“My mindset is to get everything I can with the opportunities I get, and I’ve been given more opportunities,’’ said Jones, a grad transfer from Southern Cal.
“I haven’t felt this way in a long time. It was like I was back in high school having fun, making plays.’’