By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – November 9, 2019)
What an odd game, but one that put the Tennessee Volunteers one win away from bowl eligibility with two to play. Jeremy Pruitt’s team has turned the season around, won four of its past five, competed in the one loss against Alabama on the road, and found a way seemingly with no starting quarterback…
…to get good quarterback play from SOMEBODY in relief.
Here are my Big 6 Takeaways from the 17-13 win over Kentucky on Saturday in the Bluegrass State.
THEY TRIED THEIR BEST TO LOSE IT
Boy was that ugly at the start. Blame the officials all you want, and you have reason to be upset, but Tennessee was flat out bad to open this joint. At Kroger Field, the Vols forgot their Plus card. They were paying full price for regular groceries, and they fell behind as a result. We blinked and it was 13-0, off missed opportunities, bad penalties, and a turnover.
Kentucky had the game right in the palm of its hand, but didn’t have a quarterback who could throw the football even a couple of times to take advantage of the Big Orange poor start. Possessions were quick and painful for the Vols, but at the half, it felt like the lead could have been double what it was, which was foreshadowing for the Tennessee resurgence to come.
When he’s the starter, it can be a problem, but when he’s called into the fray in the middle of the battle, the opponent might want to watch out. We’ve seen in multiple times this season from Jarrett, who seems to have a pretty good grasp on that Psychology degree he earned back in May. He absolutely doesn’t quit on his team and he doesn’t sulk on the sidelines. That’s not the “kid” we saw a few years ago that was a little headstrong and overly sensitive.
This guy accepts that he is going to end a rather nondescript career at Tennessee in a couple of months, not with the accolades he hoped for, but he’s going to honor his commitment and he’s going to play as hard as he can, because he appears to care.
Yes, I could be seeing things that aren’t there, but what else explains him continuing to perform when called upon after being benched at times or replaced by two freshmen and watching Jauan Jennings in the Wildcat? On Saturday, once Brian Maurer proved ineffective, he came in and went 7-7, finished 7-8 on the day with 115 yards, 2 touchdowns, and no interceptions. He also ran for 30 yards.
He deserves praise. He’s never going to be Patrick Mahomes, but today he was a pretty daggone good Jarrett Guarantano.
KENTUCKY CAN’T PASS
Famously, Muhammad Ali in his wrestling/boxing match with Antonio Inoki, kept taunting the Japanese grappler with “Inoki can’t wrassle. I thought Inoki could wrassle.” Well, “Kentucky can’t throw. But I knew Kentucky couldn’t throw.” Lynn Bowden is one heck of an athlete, but he threw all of seven passes on Saturday in a home game against Tennessee, and those were the only seven passes the Wildcats attempted all game.
That’s unbelievable. This isn’t high school. SEVEN passes? SEVEN? You’ve got to be joking. Technically only two of his passes were incomplete, because Nigel Warrior picked one of them off, recovering after being blown past on a route downfield.
He was hurried by the UT defense, but my goodness, the Wildcats rushed 64 times in this game and totaled over 300 yards on the ground. It was exactly what we all expected, and UK did have success, but in the end weren’t able to get into the endzone with the game on the line. Stoops has to find a QB to balance his team or he’ll never see another year like 2018.
FUMBLE, AND NOT ROOSKI
Four fumbles for Tennessee on the day, including one from Guarantano, but only Ty Chandler’s resulted in a turnover. These could have been disastrous, but finding a way to hang onto 75% of those miscues kept hope alive. That said, even with Missouri not playing particularly well, you do that next week and you’ll need that Vanderbilt game for the sixth win.
Kentucky was averaging around 21 points a game on the season, near the bottom of the SEC and low ranked nationwide. It wasn’t going to be a shootout. The fact it was this close says Tennessee played a very uneven, inconsistent game that didn’t match the quality they were trending towards.
The Mississippi State game was good, the Bama performance was encouraging to say the least, the South Carolina game was the apex, UAB was a workmanlike, vanilla win, and this was Snake Pliskin in the less successful “Escape from Lexington.” It wasn’t cute, it wasn’t cuddly, it wasn’t funny, but a dub is a dub, however you attain it.
WARRIOR… AND FRED?
On the Tennessee Tailgate Show, former Vol safety Fred White told us he had been speaking to a few guys on the Vols squad this season. He mentioned Jauan Jennings, who he said he simply thanked and said, “You are Tennessee.” The other guy he talked about, he said he’d been speaking to once a week for about a month.
That guy? Nigel Warrior
I remarked in reply to Fred that it was incredible he said Nigel’s name, because Joey Kent and I had begun talking a lot more about Warrior lately, in regards to how much better he was playing seemingly out of nowhere. He now has four interceptions on the season, adding one to the total at the expense of Bowden.
For the day, Warrior was tied for second on the team in tackles, and in addition to the pick, he also stopped a crucial drive in its tracks by trucking Wildcats to make a play on fourth down in the second half. He’s been terrific as of late, so maybe Fred White needs to make some more phone calls, including to some Tennessee Titans?
And yet again, Daniel Bituli showed out. 19 total tackles, by far the most on the team, and he was virtually everywhere all night long. It’s not a surprise. It’s now just expected from him. He’s unreal.
WYNKEN, BLYNKEN, AND VOL
Finally, it’s time to rest. It’s bedtime for the Vols as far as the schedule is concerned. This was the sixth straight week of action for Tennessee, who could use the bye badly to get a little healthier before heading to play a reeling Missouri team that just finished being on the business end of a 27-0 shutout loss to Georgia.
There is still plenty to improve on this football team to say the least, but this gives the players and the coaches ample time to tweak a few things and simply to breathe a little bit. Again, two shots to win one game, and it’s Missouri and if need be, a really bad Vanderbilt team that ALSO got shut out on Saturday, to the tune of 56-0 at the hands of Florida.
Jeremy Pruitt’s team has rebounded from the dreadful start to the season, and honestly, today’s performance was a microcosm of the entire season, with a really bad first half, mainly due to self-inflicted, baffling mistakes (including the Trey Smith penalty, which…I mean…what the heck bruh), and a second half that ended in a close W. That could BE the Tennessee story for 2019, compacted neatly into one 60 minute football game.
Five wins and four in the last five games. Tennessee is on the doorstep of the postseason. It only takes one more victory to get them there. And, as I predicted prior to South Carolina, if that one went the Vols way, this is where they’d be. I also predicted they’d finish the job and get to a bowl.
And they’re going to do just that.
If they don’t, what a sour taste that will leave after Pruitt’s squad has gotten a little buzz back in Knoxville. I actually think they’ll finish 7-5. This is a club playing together, even if not always particularly well. They’ve got enough talent and enough leadership that as long as they don’t shoot themselves in the foot, they’ll run the table en route to the postseason.