By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – October 12, 2019)
This was one the Vols had to win, it felt like they should win, and in fact, Tennessee did win. It was ugly, especially in the first half, with a multitude of interceptions on both sides, an injury to Brian Maurer, and a whole lot of defense, but at this point, a win in the SEC is a big deal for Tennessee. Here are the Big 6 Takeaways from the Mississippi State victory on Saturday.
FRESHMAN GONNA FRESHMAN
Brian Maurer had a rough second start, looking very much like his age. He’s going to be more of a gunslinger when he’s in there, and it certainly felt like Jim Chaney and Jeremy Pruitt trusted him to throw the ball more than Jarrett Guarantano. At least that’s what it looked like in the first half. Maurer threw a pair of nasty interceptions and didn’t display the poise he had in the first half against Georgia one week ago, but if you’re expecting much more, you’re begging.
He’s a freshman that plays like a freshman. At this stage, you will see some good and you’ll see some bad and yeah, you’ll see some bowling shoe ugly. He was 4/7, but only one of his passes hit the ground, as two found Bulldog defenders, including one early thrown into double coverage into the end zone that squashed a likely touchdown drive.
The fall he took that knocked him out of the game was brutal, going up and over and landing on the top of his head. With him struggling prior to that “bump,” to borrow a pro wrestling term, it was an easy call not to thrust him back into the action. JG did…
PRETTY WELL OFF THE BENCH
Guarantano is in the unenviable position of essentially being given up on by his head coach, at least relative to being the starter he envisioned at the season’s outset. Credit JG for stepping in and doing the job he was recruited to do, playing hard, and making some nice throws in the second half to balance the run attack for the Vols.
More than anything, he was efficient, which is often enough when you get a dominant defensive effort against a mediocre quarterback on the opposite side. 6/7 for 106 and a touchdown doesn’t leap off the page, but it doesn’t have to once you look up and see 20-10. Guarantano did what he had to for Tennessee, which is all you can ask.
His career is not going to be remembered by many, it probably isn’t what he hoped to achieve, but he didn’t go into the tank and sulk. He got off the bench, which his head coach had said earlier in the week might happen, though the date wasn’t specific. Pruitt said he would need JG to win a football game this season, and sure enough, it happened less than six days later. Was he GREAT? No. He under-threw Keaton on the big gainer and he’s simply not very accurate, but you can win games with him – maybe not because of him.
DEFENSE PLAY LIKE ANIMALS
Tennessee’s defense showed virtually no respect to either Tommy Stevens or Garrett Shrader, owning them most of the afternoon. The Vols forced a trifecta of interceptions and barely surrendered a 50% completion percentage on just 21 total throws. Even better, Tennessee were the aggressors up front and the tackling was much improved, leading to a 3.3 yards-per-carry rushing average with only Shrader doing much damage as a scrambler.
The Bulldogs offense under Joe Moorhead was expected to have come along a bit more than it has to this point, showing some signs last year to be sure, but right now they’re a mess. The Vols took advantage and dominated, delivering seven team sacks to Mississippi State to go along with the picks from George, Flowers, and Warrior.
This was a terrific performance. 267 total yards and MSU held the ball for under 27 minutes.
AND THEY SHUT KYLIN HILL DIZZOWN
11 carries for 13 yards on Saturday for the leading rusher in the SEC. When Daniel Bituli was told about it after the game, he said, “That’s pretty dang good.”
Penalties are just killers, and they’ve done their share of damage, including costing the Vols Henry To’o To’o for the first half against Bama next Saturday following a clear targeting call in the third quarter. But, Tennessee only felt the wrath of three infractions against Mississippi State for a total of 34 yards. Mississippi State was good in this arena as well, as we finally had a game that didn’t require a washer and dryer afterwards.
There was a decent rhythm as a result, although the defense and the offensive futility made it a tough watch in the first half. This is disciplined football Tennessee has often lacked this season, and it gives you a chance to keep drives alive and hold onto the rock. In the Florida and Georgia losses, the Vols were hit with 13 total penalties, so here we see an improvement against better competition than the better performances against lesser squads earlier in the season. It hasn’t been dreadfully undisciplined with penalties, but three will get it done every time.
Also part of cleanliness are turnovers, of which Tennessee wasn’t quite as hygienic, but we’ll let that go today following the victory.
THE BIG SIX? FOR PRU? YOU’D BETTER BELIEVE IT
Not my show this time, as I mean six games remaining in the season, and FIVE of them are winnable if Tennessee shows up on all sides. You won’t beat Alabama on your best day, but even with South Carolina defeating a baffling Georgia team, Will Muschamp being on the other sideline means you can ALWAYS find a way to get that dub. Then it’s UAB, UK, Mizzou, and an absolutely putrid Vanderbilt team that is the embarrassment of the state on the 2019 college gridiron.
I said you CAN win them, but that doesn’t mean you will. This Vols team has proven precisely one thing this year, which is they could also go 0-6 and finish 2-10. That seems unlikely, but going 3-3 certainly does not, nor would 2-4. Jeremy Pruitt knows this stretch matters to his future. He’s coming back next year, but how hot is that seat? Lay too many eggs and you’ve got yourself a significant problem. South Carolina is an enormous game. The momentum from winning there could propel you. A bad loss could derail you.
If the Vols can beat the Gamecocks, they might win three of the last four. If not, they might not win two of those games. That’s how much of a seesaw we’re looking at here.
An SEC win always feels good, and Tennessee badly, desperately wanted that feeling. Their fans have it. Tuscaloosa won’t go well, but that game on 10/26 is HUGE, ENORMOUS – flat out GHASTLY important. If you win it, this team can make a bowl. If you don’t, you’re a four win team. It’s that simple. 20-10 though today and a lot of positives to be said there.