By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – September 8, 2018)
Well, one weather delay isn’t exactly every weather delay now, is it? The better team emerged from the pseudo-storm in Charlotte to dominate after a slow start, and the exact same thing happened in Knoxville on Saturday.
Luckily for head coach Jeremy Pruitt and Vol Nation, this time the better team was the one in orange and white. The score got completely out of hand in short order after the 46 minute stoppage, and before anyone could blink, the rout was on. Here are my Big 6 Takeaways from the 59-3 shellacking over ETSU at Neyland Stadium this afternoon.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE IS A PROBLEM
West Virginia is one thing, especially on a neutral field in the first game of the season and the first game for an entire coaching staff. It’s a work in progress and the Volunteers needed to see what they had and where each player needed to be to succeed. It’s not necessarily something that would be figured out in two weeks either, but the goal has to be to have those answers by the time Dan Mullen and the Florida Gators fly into Knoxville on September 22.
There’s no way to adequately evaluate anything that happened after the delay. Yes, the line played better, but it didn’t matter because of the defensive touchdowns. The offense was unnecessary, as we saw freshman Jeremy Banks score two TDs on four combined yards rushing.
But early in the game, the OL performance was flat out atrocious and unacceptable. You can’t tell me that group needed time to settle in against East Tennessee State with a straight face. They were completely unable to block the Bucs, and as a result, not only could Tim Jordan not find any room, but Jarrett Guarantano couldn’t find any time to throw. That has to change. There’s nothing else to say here. What mattered for that OL was what happened when the game was close, before the defense provided all that cushion for the offense, and it was largely a disaster.
VOLS MAY HAVE FOUND A SHORT YARDAGE BACK (OR TWO)
Two touchdowns in the first half for Jeremy Banks, who showed good burst and “want to” in his running style in that second quarter. He was very good, by any measure. In consecutive weeks, we’ve seen different guys emerge, and Ty Chandler will be heard from before all is said and done as well. You have to be careful to take too much from any overwhelming success against an FCS opponent, but you also can only play against your schedule.
In the second half, Banks got more physical and began trucking Bucs defenders, and though he didn’t have an impressive number of yards on paper, he ran hard and he showed the same style of toughness we saw last week from Jordan. In fact, as ETSU’s defense became more and more fatigued, he ran strong and hard, as did Madre London, who found his way into the end zone more than once as well. Both guys showed some flashes, although Banks was the one we’ll be talking about this coming week.
It’s not a bad problem to have that the Vols appear to have several capable backs, and Chandler hasn’t been able to show what he can do yet. They’re going to need them all on September 22, or at least they’re going to need one guy to go off. The chances are always going to be better when you have at least moderate faith in a group, although ETSU isn’t applicable in any comparison to Florida or another SEC opponent.
THE SECONDARY SHOWED SOME SKILL AGAINST AN OUTMATCHED ETSU OFFENSE
This is what you wanted to see from such a young group. These two weeks are about getting right and being ready for the next big test. It was a confidence-boosting kind of day for the Tennessee secondary, who covered ETSU receivers well all day and were much more consistent in tackling and with their angles. It’s not comparable to West Virginia’s corps, which is one of the most talented in the country, but this was a week where freshman got the mental bump that they still know how to play this game.
Nigel Warrior did some good things in the ball game, Bryce Thompson nearly got himself a pick six off a deflected slip screen, and then came Darren Kirkland Jr.’s INT and touchdown. The defense ended the game before the offense fully woke up, making it easy and leading Guarantano to a short afternoon as Keller Chryst took over.
We’re going to see confusion and we’re going to see a lot of mistakes in 2018 from the DBs, but progress is still progress. You’re supposed to do this to ETSU if you’re UT, and it’s supposed to be dominant and hard to watch for the opponent. That’s what it was. Midway through the fourth quarter, with the score 52-3, the Bucs muffed a punt and UT took over.
SEC Network then cut to the Kentucky-Florida game, because there was nothing more to see.
MARQUEZ CALLAWAY IS STILL REALLY GOOD
He was uncoverable for the most part against ETSU, as he should have been considering the size discrepancy. No one in the Bucs secondary measures six feet tall, which made it a nearly impossible task for them. UT wasn’t able to throw it as much as they could have, both because the lead changed the strategy but also because of the early OL woes, but when they did, Callaway was outstanding.
Last year, we all saw how good he was, but he’s going to have to be THIS guy in the big weeks in order to give the Fighting Pruitts a chance. He’s big, he goes up and gets the ball, and even when he’s interfered with, he can still make the play, as he did on the 51 yarder that set up one of Banks’ scores. All in all, he finished with five grabs for 78 yards, averaging over 15 per reception, and he has 11 catches on the season.
He only had 406 yards last season, and he already has more than a quarter of that in two games this year. He’s the leader of the receiving corps in terms of overall talent, and he’s going to be the focus of most opposing defenses, which SHOULD create opportunities for Dominick Wood Anderson, Jauan Jennings, and Josh Palmer, who had a 51 yard catch of his own against ETSU to go along with a 20-yard end around touchdown. I’ve been impressed with him thus far as well.
IDEAL CIRCUMSTANCES IN THE SECOND HALF
Jeremy Pruitt and the rest of his staff wanted to get a look at as many players in an actual game situation as they could, and being able to get Keller Chryst out there as early as they did was just the tip of the iceberg. Vols fans that returned after the weather delay saw the equivalent of an NFL week four preseason lineup throughout much of the second half outside of a few positions.
That is what needs to happen for a young football team and a new head coach. A lot of guys got snaps and got reps and got a taste of college football, which is ultimately a major success against an opponent where the “win” isn’t (or shouldn’t be) in doubt. The young secondary stayed in longer of course, but we saw a more disciplined football team today, but also one that’s very much a work in progress in most positions on the field.
The weather delay came at 10-0 and it looked underwhelming to say the least, but 59-3 is 59-3. The defense led the way, and as a result, a lot of Vol jerseys got dirty due to game action. That’s a great thing for Tennessee, a team that will bring back nearly everybody of note a season from now. All these reps will count in the long run.
ZERO TURNOVERS (FOR TENNESSEE ANYWAY) AND JUST THREE PENALTIES
Clean. Jeremy Pruitt told Kris Budden of ESPN as he was leaving the field at half he was still upset with the mental mistakes. There weren’t a lot of them. Guarantano was careful and the team played much more disciplined football both before and after the snap. Early in the game, Tennessee’s Austin Pope was flagged for a false start. That was one of the only blemishes on the afternoon.
After the rain delay, ETSU started handing it to Tennessee. But even before, Marquill Osborne blocked a punt and took it in from 8 yards out. The Bucs muffed another one late, but two interceptions for the Vols all as their offense managed to protect it. Guarantano threw six incompletions last week in Charlotte and only had five today, finishing 8-13. He hasn’t given it away through the air this season, with just a TD and no INTs for the season.
Special teams played well, defense played very well, and the offense at least didn’t make the big mistakes or mental errors that often defined the Butch Jones era in Knoxville. As the competition ramps up, this is one category that must remain strong. The Vols do not have a talented overall roster in 2018, so if they beat themselves, a lot of these games won’t even be close.
So far, so good in that respect for the most part.
Next week against UTEP, who holds the longest current FBS losing streak in the nation. It will be a mild step up from ETSU, but hardly a tune-up for Florida. The Vols need to keep the intensity and learn what they can about themselves while dodging any big injuries either in practice or in the game itself. The OL will be the unit everyone is watching, and it will be from the first snap, not late in the game with a lead. If they struggle again early against the Miners, that should scare Tennessee fans to death with the Gators on deck.
All in all, Jeremy Pruitt gets his first victory at Tennessee and as a college head coach, 59-3. A lot went right, but we are a long way away from the Vols being particularly threatening in the SEC East. It’s a young team, and they’ll get better every week. That’s all you can ask for and all you can fairly judge them on in 2018.