By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – October 5, 2019)
When is a moral victory actually okay? Some of you would say never, but in the case of the Tennessee Volunteers, we’ve reached the point where the program is two years away from being two years away. Making the fan base believe them to merely be two years away would be an improvement. Considering all that this season has brought, or perhaps WROUGHT would be the more apt term, at least for 25 minutes on Saturday against Georgia, Tennessee showed some fight.
But, they’re not talented enough to beat Georgia.
And they’re not good enough to beat Georgia.
And they don’t have a head coach ready to beat Georgia.
Here are the Big 6 Takeaways from Tennessee’s lopsided scoreboard loss to Georgia in front of over 92 thousand at Neyland Stadium.
Let’s begin with the positives. Freshman Brian Maurer made some nice throws and showed some poise early. My Tennessee Tailgate Show broadcast partner, Joey Kent, told me he saw a “good high school quarterback” watching Maurer against Florida. What he meant was the youngster could make some plays, make some throws, but stared down his receivers and had no ability to go through progressions or read coverage. But, Georgia came out a little flat and Tennessee was ready to play.
The Dawgs have been excellent in the first quarter and the first half this season, but the Vols neutralized them and held a lead in the second quarter. There was fire on offense with Jennings and Callaway and there was legit fire on defense as well, with To’o To’o and Bituli and the DBs getting stops. I thought it would be a positive result for Tennessee if they made Georgia feel as if they had to EARN the win.
I’d say that was the case, although the second half wouldn’t indicate it. Still, this was the start Tennessee needed. They played with Georgia for 30 minutes… or maybe 25.
GAME ENDED IN THE LATTER STAGES OF THE FIRST HALF
Brent Cimaglia was perfect all season, ESPN put up the graphic depicting his 9/9 on field goal tries, and he immediately missed a 47-yard attempt that would have cut the lead to three at 20-17. Instead, after the blemish, Georgia had 59 seconds to try and add to the lead. I tweeted out how important that last minute would be and that Tennessee needed to be extremely careful, because that minute could break the Vols’ collective back, not to mention destroy the energy in the stadium, should it go the wrong way.
Guess what happened?
Georgia scored with nine seconds left in the half, exacerbating the missed FG and turning what would have been a three point game into a 26-14 game at half. This felt like a death blow, despite how much of the game remained to be played. In the second half, 26-14 would eventually become 29-14, then 36-14, then 43-14.
The poise Maurer showed early evaporated, his arm got banged up, Guarantano came into the game, but even though a couple of plays were out there to be had… and the Vols collected some yards, the points were more and more elusive. Georgia was better. But that missed FG set the stage for the avalanche that followed.
I saw a lot of social media posts exclaiming how obvious it was that Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt had his team prepared to play and they were coached up against Georgia. This drives me insane, just as blanket assertions that the coach is clueless do. How many practices did these armchair experts attend? Tennessee has talent, and when they play well and don’t defeat themselves, they can be a dangerous football team. The biggest problem is the same thing you see between an elite high school team and a mediocre one…
EVERYBODY HAS PLAYERS. But one can sustain the high level of play and the dominance and avoid fatigue for four quarters and the other begins taking on water. Tennessee played with Georgia, but talent and polish won out in the second half, and did so in devastating fashion in terms of covering the spread, which was large… 24.5 at kickoff.
I am now on record. Pruitt is not equipped for the job he holds, but he should get a third season to prove me wrong. Four coaches in a decade and every single time it’s like you’re hitting the reset button on the program. You can’t run your organization like the Cleveland Browns did for so many years and expect it to work. He needs a third year. If there’s no progress next season, you move on. I think that’s what will happen. He’s not ready for this gig.
He’s a defensive coordinator. And his defense isn’t good… particularly the DBs, where he buttered his bread throughout his career as an assistant.
TEE OH PEA
Tennessee didn’t hold the ball for 25 minutes in this game, actually not even 24, which isn’t too surprising considering the Georgia rushing attack and the attempts to drown the clock in the second half once the outcome was no longer in question. But, asking a defense to chase Swift and Herrier around for well over half the game is not a recipe for success. Once fatigue set in, those holes were bigger and those running lanes became four lane interstate highways.
Jake Fromm is excellent, but his numbers aren’t usually the story for Georgia. That’s not his fault, but the rest of his offense, which is so good he becomes just one of the options. On most teams and in most places he could play, the vast majority of schools in this country, it would be ALL about him. But on this day, he went 24/29 with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was every bit the veteran starter Kirby Smart knew he had, and when called into action, he wasn’t just efficient, he was downright lethal.
5/11 on third down and over 520 yards of total offense for Georgia. Yeah, that’ll usually tell the story as it relates to time of possession. Georgia controlled the football like a selfish child unwilling to hand over a slice of cake to his best friend on his birthday.
IT’S PRONOUNCED “MOWWWW-WHIR”
He’s a freshman, so he’s going to do some good things and some baffling, befuddling, bamboozling things. He’s too young to even realize the spot he’s in, and I wonder often how many Tennessee players in 2019 truly despise Georgia the way the fans would hope they do. This is a RIVALRY, despite how lopsided it has been in recent years. It was knotted up at 23-23 with three ties, and Georgia’s win on Saturday put them in charge with the 24th victory.
Maurer hit some open targets and threw the longest Tennessee touchdown pass since 2015 when he connected with Marquez Callaway down the left sideline for 73 yards. It was a beautiful ball from the second it left his hands. He’s going to get better. Don’t all of a sudden give up on him.
He shouldn’t have started until Mississippi State next week, because Georgia was such a tall order. But, he showed more than a few flashes of good decision making and ability out there. This was not Nathan Peterman in Gainesville, which Vols fans will never forget. Who knows how good he can be, but there’s some potential in him as quarterback. He should get plenty of reps this year, even with the season largely being a lost cause at 1-4.
IN THE TRENCHES… PROBLEM, BUT THIS DEFENSE – YIKES
Against the huge Georgia offensive line, a unit that averages over 328 pounds per lineman, the defensive front was going to struggle. Tennessee didn’t have much of a chance at keeping Maurer and Guarantano’s jerseys clean, although the OL would do their best against some talented dudes. They weren’t obliterated, but it was again exposed how much more is needed for them to take the next step in the SEC. That said, this year, the OL hasn’t been nearly as concerning as the DL, which simply hasn’t been very good.
When you add in the fact that the Vols secondary (which one would assume would be a strength of the team considering it’s Jeremy Pruitt’s specialty) has been borderline awful in key moments, there are some troubling numbers to be found across the Georgia offensive totals, and basically everybody else this team has played in 2019. What’s most infuriating for Tennessee fans has to be the tendency for the DBs to make GREAT plays and then turn around and let BYU send a game to overtime that was in essence already won.
There are some technique issues, but there are some flat out enormous tackling issues across the field for Tennessee as well. Herrien is fantastic, but he looked like Marshawn Lynch against a Pop Warner team on his 40 yard scamper that set up a Rodrigo Blankenship second quarter field goal. They couldn’t bring him down, not just because of his strength and elusiveness, but because of poor execution from the defenders attempting to tackle him and end the play. They didn’t wrap up, the form was all wrong, and as a result, he trucked them with relative ease.
Mississippi State isn’t a juggernaut, but if the Vols don’t play with their heads and their hearts, they’ll get soundly beaten. There are some positive takeaways from the 43-14 loss to Georgia, at least relative to the start and the energy they played with, but once it began to get away from them, they fell completely apart. This will be a big week of practice. They must show up prepared and with that same mindset and passion against the Bulldogs, in order to make sure that the two canine universities don’t BOTH chew them up like a rawhide bone.
Brian Maurer? We’ll see. He’ll make plays. He’ll make you crazy. He’s a freshman. The defense has to be better. They have to run it better. They have to control the ball. They can’t make the killer turnovers. And the kicking and punting has to be more like what it was in every game BEFORE Georgia, where it was bad all around.
Two years away from being two years away. Progress week to week is what people want to see right now. Miracles aren’t in the offing at the present time.