By JASON MARTIN (September 1, 2018)
Game one of the Jeremy Pruitt era at Tennessee is in the books, and although it became trendy to pick the Vols to pull the upset or keep it close, in the second half, Will Grier and the Mountaineers offense proved to be far too much for a very inexperienced secondary and an overmatched defense in general. West Virginia was going to score points, that much everyone knew, but how many would they score and how long would it take for them to gel?
Early, Will Grier was a little off, missing the mark on a few of his targets, and even David Sills V dropped a touchdown in the back of the end zone. Grier made a few mistakes off his back foot, but Tennessee wasn’t able to cause enough havoc in the backfield to make him consistently uncomfortable, and eventually he settled in and picked them apart with his plethora of targets.
Here are my Big Six Takeaways from Week One for Tennessee football.
JEREMY PRUITT SHOWED THE GRAPEFRUITS BUTCH NEVER DID.
The fourth down call that led to the touchdown was a mixture of a good decision, a solid scheme, and perfect execution. Tyson Helton used Marquez Callaway as a decoy on the left side, sending him wide to make it appear as if the Vols were attempting a fade, and instead Guarantano looked right and threw to a wide open Dominick Wood-Anderson in the back of the end zone.
The first thought every Vols fan in the country had was, “Butch would have kicked that.” It’s going to become a common refrain that Pruitt is coaching and attacking in a way his predecessor in that job never would. Butch looked mean but coached scared, if not in regularly mind-boggling and mind-numbing fashion. Pruitt was all business, and when it was 4th and Goal two yards from the end zone, we all knew this guy was going to go for it.
At just 10-0, and Gary Danielson shouting that you just want points, Pruitt gambled and it paid off, at least in the short term. That’s what you want if you’re Tennessee fans. You want your team in position to win and with someone on the sidelines confident enough to roll the dice and not always rely on a laminated chart to make decisions.
Pruitt seemed under control and, though the final score was lopsided, didn’t have the “deer in headlights” look we saw from Derek Mason in his first game at the helm of Vanderbilt four years ago. Whether that means anything in the end, we have no idea. Ultimately, it’s about W’s, but it was encouraging to see Pruitt being aggressive early and often.
WELCOME TO THE PARTY, TIM JORDAN.
The 5’11 sophomore was listed in bold on the depth chart, but once Ty Chandler went down with the injury and couldn’t return to action, it became #9’s day for the Volunteers. It was impossible not to view some of the physicality and “want to” of John Kelly in Jordan, which is as high a compliment as can be paid at this stage to a Tennessee back. He proved his worth as he rushed 20 times for 118 yards and scored a second half touchdown.
What we saw from Jordan is what we didn’t see as much in the first few drives, where the Vols backs were attempting to run east and west and weren’t recognizing that they couldn’t get to the edge with a shoddy offensive line that struggled mightily out of the gate. That’s where Jordan stood out, as he ran downhill from the second the ball touched his fingertips. He bowled Mountaineers over, stiff armed a few, and almost always gained extra positive yardage after contact.
It was an impressive performance for Jordan, and one that seems to speak to the Pruitt physical on both sides of the football mentality. That’s a bright spot, a major one for this Volunteers offense. This team is going to have to run the ball if the OL can’t give Jarrett Guarantano more time to throw. Jordan showed some burst, and although we saw both positives and negatives from Michigan State transfer Madre London, this was Tim’s night, and #9 may already be a household name for Vols fans going forward.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE’S ASCENT MAYYYY HAVE BEEN EXAGGERATED.
Even with Trey Smith back, and although he left the field with a right ankle issue early, he would return, this OL is a work in progress at best. It has been a constant problem for Tennessee for the past handful of years, and West Virginia blew the Vols off the ball in that first half. Kenny Bigelow annihilated Bama transfer Brandon Kennedy on the first offensive snap of the game and nearly forced a turnover. It was as close to a disaster as could have occurred to open the football game.
Incidentally, Bigelow might just be a monster in general, even though UT made him look like Ed Oliver in the first half at Bank of America Stadium.
The line did settle down a bit, started giving Guarantano more room to work with, and he didn’t always have to deal with a three steps and throw mentality, but overall, WVU’s defense isn’t going to be up to par with what Tennessee will face during the brunt of its schedule, so this performance was still concerning. West Virginia only surrendered 301 total yards on the day in the victory, which is something that should lead to more than a few anxious thoughts in the run-up to Florida after the ETSU and UTEP games.
Just six incompletions for Jarrett Guarantano today, but just 172 yards passing, with a 6.9 yards per pass average, which was nearly 50% less than Will Grier. That may speak to another thought coming from this game…
GUARANTANO CAN THROW, BUT TENNESSEE DIDN’T GO DEEP.
This was a weekly problem in the Butch Jones era, where the offense seemed almost painfully conservative and designed not to lose, rather than to win. When he had a clean pocket, Guarantano was very good in Charlotte, and he has some athletes and some solid pass catchers to go to, including the newest weapon at TE, Dominick Wood-Anderson, who is going to be a stud. Mark that down. He caught the Pruitt era’s first touchdown as well in the second quarter.
West Virginia’s secondary was atrocious in 2017, and notoriously isn’t a strong suit, but they weren’t challenged virtually at all in this game. Instead, it was short hitch routes and underneath stuff, sometimes because of pressure, but often because Jarrett wasn’t even looking downfield. You have to give your skill players the football and trust them to make plays for you. Marquez Callaway, Jauan Jennings, and Josh Palmer all were heard from, but not enough, and certainly not deep.
Guarantano again averaged just 6.9 yards per throw, which must improve. That said, 19-25 and generally under control all day, accurate more often than not, and showed why he got the start. He looked the part today, but the offense needs to give him the ability to throw his team into a win rather than keep them from a blowout loss.
ROOKIE SECONDARY MUST EXPECT TO BE TESTED.
Once West Virginia fully recognized just how lost the Tennessee secondary was, the Mountaineers aired the ball out like crazy to David Sills V, to Gary Jennings Jr., and to T.J. Simmons. It should have been expected, and it assuredly was, but whether you know it’s coming or not doesn’t matter if you don’t have the awareness yet to stop it. Several times, the freshmen were targeted, with Sills abusing Trevon Flowers in the third quarter for a touchdown, just one of several instances where Holgorsen went after the Vols on the back end.
When you have a Biletnikoff contender on the field, it’s going to be tough anyway, but this is a Vols secondary that appeared confused, communicating late in the waining seconds prior to a snap, and repeatedly found themselves chasing a Mountaineers receiver rather than running with him. They’re only going to get better, but it could be a little tough to watch for much of this season.
What you want to see over the next two games, against lesser competition, including a UTEP team sporting the longest current losing streak in FBS, is these rookies getting their sea legs underneath them and building a little confidence as well as a little more mental strength respective to the college game and what they’re going to have to do. We will see MANY errors this year, and all that you really want is progress and continuous effort and energy regardless of situation.
Overall, West Virginia’s Will Grier was 25-34 for 429 yards, and two touchdowns were dropped, and he missed at least another two scores, one to his running back that was matched up against a linebacker outside the numbers and another that he threw out of bounds intended for Sills. It was a tough day for the Vols DB’s, but they’ll have better ones.
Or they’d BETTER have better ones.
DON’T BLAME THE LIGHTNING DELAY…TOO MUCH.
No doubt West Virginia didn’t look like the same team in the second half. They were much more crisp offensively and far more in command of their own offensive schemes. The execution was better, the timing between Grier and his receivers was better, and the Tennessee secondary was exposed continuously as a result.
Momentum might have belonged to the Vols, but for the fact they couldn’t take advantage of a SPENT Mountaineers defense after forcing a three and out following the touchdown to DWA. It was a positive development to hold Grier and company to three, chasing him backwards when he was in the red zone and forcing a 35 yard field goal at the end of the half, but it was still 13-7 and WVU would get the ball first. Still, better than 17-7.
And then, the weather came and nearly 90 minutes passed, but Guarantano didn’t look rusty or out of sync when he came back in. Jordan was even better in the second half, and it was more that West Virginia was superior in the second half than it was the Vols completely falling apart. Grier took advantage of…well…of his advantages down the field, made the most of his throws, and before you knew it, the score was 33-14 entering the fourth quarter and it was a wrap.
The first three second half possessions for WVU were touchdowns, and none of them required more than 5:00. All went at least 60 yards.
It’s true the momentum and the lengthy break could have been a mental game changer, but this was about one team being more experienced, more skilled, and more athletic in the spots it needed to be than the guys on the other side. So don’t use that as an excuse.
This isn’t a litmus test for Pruitt or the Vols. This was the first game, against a ranked team, on a neutral field, and the orange and white got beat. It’s that simple. You move on and don’t dwell on it, watch the film, see where you can fix some of the blemishes, and you correct them.
The coaching really begins now.
Every week after each Vols game, I’ll bring you my rapid big six reactions to the contest. What’d I get wrong? Yell at me @JMartZone anytime. I can take it. I’m an adult. I’m a grown man. I’m a man. I’m (nearly) forty.