By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – September 29, 2018)
You have to take the positives from a season like this as a Vols football fan. It wasn’t going to be an overnight turnaround, and a culture shift doesn’t happen in four games. Last week was an embarrassment, and this week the spread was 31 at kick in Athens. But, Tennessee showed up and did everything in its power to make it a football game in the second half.
Coach Jeremy Pruitt fought back tears in postgame just remarking about the effort and desire his team played with against Georgia. These young men did not quit. They gave it all they had. And he appreciated it. Every Vols fan should. This was not going to be a fun day, but Tennessee tried to make it interesting for as long as they could. They’re just not there right now.
Georgia was lethargic and didn’t seem too interested in the game after the fumble that turned into a fluke touchdown, which is a recipe for a closer result than expected. But, the loss does drop the Vols to 2-3 on the season. Here are my Big 6 Takeaways from the 38-12 loss between the hedges to the Dawgs.
YOU MADE IT TOUGH ON EM…FOR A WHILE
If you’re a Tennessee football player, you came in knowing a victory was not just improbable, but HIGHLY unlikely. Most of the country was laughing at the matchup. Georgia was unable, however, to rest on its laurels and yawn a win into existence. The second half featured a Vols team that played hard, protected the football, and served the role of irritant effectively. Georgia wasn’t able to do much on offense until the final five minutes of the game. Once it became 24-12, Smart’s crew woke up a bit with Justin Fields in the game, but it was the power running attack against an exhausted Tennessee front that showed in those later stages.
Jeremy Banks, Alontae Taylor, and certainly Jarrett Guarantano all played well, among others. Unfortunately for Banks, he found a way to fumble again at 31-12, and it happened again attempting to get extra yardage. That has to change for him or he’s not going to get the carries his talent seems to otherwise deserve. In the end, the score was still quite lopsided, but it doesn’t truly tell the story. Georgia was never in any danger of losing the game, but the Bulldogs also didn’t play to the level that margin indicates.
DEFENSE SHOWED UP…THEN GOT TIRED
Georgia scored early and then Tennessee shut them down for awhile, as the Dawgs made a few mistakes and the secondary made some plays. In fact, at 24-12, it was a solid day for that unit. But, as they were asked to play quite a few snaps on several late series, the group finally ran out of gas and Georgia just ran it straight down the Volunteers collective throats. Justin Fields offers another dimension Jake Fromm can’t as an athlete, which also creates space, gaps, and breathing room for the talented Bulldogs backfield.
Georgia fumbled four times and Tennessee had a good shot to recover all of them.
Tennessee recovered none of them, and had some awful luck that led to the first Georgia touchdown as Fromm dropped it and it bounced right to Nauta, who took it all the way into the painted area.
Chasing down speedy and elusive backs, and also a nifty-footed quarterback takes its toll when the respites are few and far between. The corners and safeties were relatively solid in coverage for the most part, at least keeping Georgia receivers out of the end zone, but once attrition totals expanded, the white jerseys simply got tired, and had nothing left with which to stop the rushing attack. Again, compared to the performance against Florida a week ago, you saw effort and a little more awareness against Georgia. It just comes down to one team being far deeper, not to mention far better, than the other.
220 rushing yards for Georgia, over 200 to Florida last week. 5 of 5 for Georgia in the red zone. It’s going to be a consistent problem in the second half of this stretch of games. That’s without any doubt.
LACK OF RUSHING ATTACK
How much of the general futility on the ground for Tennessee is due to the offensive line is up to your eyes, but there was not much room to run outside of the Chandler touchdown run. These are some talented backs, although as much as you like Jeremy Banks, if he doesn’t stop fumbling, he becomes ineffective and the trust factor dissipates relative to him as a ball carrier. Chandler is so quick, Jordan is a power back, as is London, as is Banks for the most part, but for that smash mouth attack to work, the line has to hold its own.
With the exception of that third quarter and the early minutes of the fourth, it simply wasn’t there. Look, Georgia is the number two team in the country and they’re enormous up front. Tennessee is undermanned, undersized, and under skilled. That said, if Tennessee can’t create enough open grass to permit any north/south running on a consistent basis, 3-9 is going to be the result. Georgia only gave up 209 total yards on the day, but at least the Vols gave it all they had.
All they had on the ground, courtesy of their own line and Georgia’s defense? 25 carries for 66 yards, with 37 of those coming on three combined carries, meaning the other 22 netted a grand total of 29 yards. That’s crazy.
THE PUNT PENALTIES IN THE FIRST QUARTER
True story: I was actually composing a tweet saying even IF Jeremy Pruitt is the guy, it’s going to take a lot of time. To Georgia, Tennessee becomes the week where they’re hoping to get guys some extra reps and work out some kinks in their schemes. It’s a long process, and the Vols have quite a distance to travel. And then came the penalties for illegal formations three separate times, twice back-to-back, on punts. Six on the line and five behind ain’t gonna fly, and as a result, the flags did go aerial from the zebras.
As much leeway as I’m willing to offer Pruitt, those infractions are coaching mistakes, pure and simple, and I’m sure Jeremy himself would tell you he’s the one to blame there. It’s inexcusable for a college football team to look that Keystone Cops, regardless of the situation. As well as Tennessee fought in this football game, that was a farcical parody of a satire of basic competence.
It can’t happen. Not for Tennessee. Not for Tennessee Christian Directional Tech.
STILL UNIMPRESSED WITH HELTON
He’s a first year OC, but was he the right choice for this complete rebuild, considering it’s also a brand new head coach? I said after UTEP that the offense looked very vanilla, but perhaps Tyson wasn’t interested in showing his cards prior to Florida. Then, I went to Knoxville and watched that car crash, and realized he hadn’t held anything back. He just didn’t have much. Perhaps it’s not trusting the personnel, but Helton has GOT to try some things and be willing to let Guarantano throw.
One of the only deep shots we saw went for a touchdown to Josh Palmer in the third quarter, the first points for Tennessee against Georgia in over six quarters of football action. When you have Marquez Callaway, you have to give him a chance to make a play. Jauan Jennings is basically on a milk carton at this point, and outside of the Palmer play and the 35-yard touchdown for Chandler (which was mainly his own maneuvering), the longest completions of the day were 13 and then 12 yards. The OL isn’t a help, but the play calling has been the opposite of aggressive.
JG is going to be hit…a lot, and he’s going to be chased around…a lot, but give him the opportunity to throw you into (or out of) a game, particularly against juggernaut-ish opposition. What do you have to lose? It’s too early to bury Helton, but right now he does not look up for this gig
THIRD DOWN CONTINUES TO DOOM THE VOLS
Here, you have to be ahead of the chains or you have to be able to gain short yardage on runs. A lot of the third down attempts were not in the favor of Big Orange respective to down and distance, but 2-10 for the game is going to get you beaten every single time. Butch’s 2017 squad barely converted at a 35% success rate, and Pruitt’s team is trending to be worse.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee defense, particularly late, allowed Georgia to finish 8-14 in the same category. In a game where the Vols didn’t throw an interception and, outside of the Banks bobble, didn’t hand the football to Georgia the easy way, third downs tell a gigantic story, as to penalties, where Tennessee committed 5, but none for more than 5 yards, which is a surprising and optimistic takeaway from the game.
Tyson Helton has GOT to figure something out during the bye week in terms of what to call on third downs, and if he doesn’t already, Guarantano needs to be given a green light to audible when he sees one-on-one coverage on later downs deep in his own territory. That cost the Vols dearly against the Gators last week, and the third down situation is dire right now to say the least.
You’ve got a bye and then you’ve got Auburn. Woe is the Vols. It’s going to get much worse before it gets any better, but Tennessee played far better football today in Athens than last week in Knoxville. 38-12 is still ugly, but the Volunteers did cover the spread. Georgia is going to be a favorite for the College Football Playoff and they’re loaded everywhere, so the expectation was simply not to shoot yourself in the foot with a handmade, sawed-off shotgun like you did last week. In that respect, Tennessee succeeded.
This is where Vols Football is right now. It’s nearly rock bottom. Along with Arkansas, Tennessee is the most feeble of SEC programs. So you just want to see effort, you want to see guys play hard, and you want to see incremental improvement across the board. I look at 38-12 as a relatively good loss CONSIDERING everything.
If you’re a Vols fan, you knew it was going to be a long season, and it is. But there were things in Athens that might give you hope for a year or two down the road. Now, you keep working in practice and prepare to implement what you learn in two weeks against the Tigers.