By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – January 2, 2019)
See, this is why you don’t gamble. Vegas had this game Tennessee -1.5. How they decide their lines is quite the science, but for crying out loud, I’d be crying out loud, because I was sure the Vols would make this much easier on themselves than they did on Thursday night.
But whenever we’re too certain in either direction about Tennessee, this season should have taught us anything could happen. Within the confines of 60 minutes, we saw a reflection of the entire 2019 campaign in Cliffs Notes format. But it ended as a historic comeback for Jeremy Pruitt’s club. Here are my Big 6 Takeaways from the 23-22 Big Orange Dub.
When he starts, watch out. But after he gets benched for a little while, he tends to play better. He couldn’t have played much worse for the vast majority of this game, but when the Vols needed him most, he brought his best ball to the field. The defense kept them in it, the running game was effective, but Guarantano was flat out overthrowing dudes all night long, particularly in the red zone, where it was Calamity Jarrett…with all apologies to Jane.
Zero TDs and a pair of interceptions to match his jersey number for Guarantee…no… how about money back guarantee? As in Vols fans that all of a sudden were feeling like they had equity in this guy, that he had become what they wanted at the beginning of the season, now were watching Georgia State all over again. He finished 18/31, which if you watched the first three quarters, would tell you just how well he performed in the last 8-10 minutes of the game.
This was UGLY from 2, but in the final tally, he’s the one that walked out with a victory. It wasn’t due to his stellar play, but he did show some resilience again after it was all going wrong for him. That’s his story at UT, that’s his 2019 season, and that’s his TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.
VOLS WHOOP WHOP
Defense, defense defense! Chant it out loud, Vol Nation, because on this night, the one player everyone had at least researched enough to realize was dangerous as a playmaker for the Hoosiers may as well have stayed in Bloomington and watched the game on television.
Whop Philyor was a 1000 yard receiver that always seemed to be open on the highlights I watched earlier this week, but not only was he blanketed by the Vols secondary, he was basically invisible. How about these numbers for Tennessee against IU’s stud wideout:
1 catch, 1 yard.
1 carry. -7 yards.
2 punt returns, -4 yards
As bad as it went for JG throughout much of the game, keeping Philyor in check gave Tennessee a chance to get back in the game quickly. All they needed was a few plays, which they got, in the form of…
14 POINTS IN 30 SECONDS
Let me tell you what Indiana wasn’t ready for in Florida on Thursday evening…an onside kick after that first Vols touchdown in the fourth quarter. This was a beautifully executed play, where the ball was touched about as close to ten yards from the tee as one could possibly have pulled off, which made it legal and handed the ball right back to Tennessee.
Effectively, this broke the spirit of Indiana’s football team, although they’d try to make it interesting in the 59th minute of regulation. Directly after a 10 play, 82 yard drive that ended with a one yard Quavaris Crouch run into the end zone, IU’s defense had to come right back out. Credit Paxton Brooks for the perfect boot. And once the ball was back in Guarantano’s hands, Tennessee scored in three plays.
The Vols special teams unit could line up 100 more times in the same situation and I’m reasonably certain they wouldn’t be able to do it better than they did it in the actual football game. Maybe they’d duplicate it once or twice, but you couldn’t improve upon it.
RUN RUN RUDOLPH
Yeah, Christmas passed, but I didn’t use the title during the holiday season, so here you go. Deal with it. The Vols knew Indiana couldn’t stop the run, but we’ve seen this season against other squads that struggle against the rush…Tennessee still doesn’t take advantage like you think they might.
35 carries for 136 yards for the Volunteers against a defense that was surrendering 211 yards in their VICTORIES, far more in their losses. Eric Gray was named the MVP of the Gator Bowl, and he was effective, mainly due to a few big second half chunk plays, including a 22 yard scamper. He had 14 totes for 86 hashmarks and added a pair of receptions for 34 yards. Still, Ty Chandler goes 12 for 35 and the Vols only averaged 3.9 yards per carry.
If you want the reason why this game almost went the other way, look no further than Tennessee not having success against a defense EVERYBODY has succeeded against on the ground all season long. This is an area UT desperately needs to improve entering the 2020 season. With Chaney in that gig, I expected more. It was underwhelming, although Gray has emerged in the last two games and may be a real force in the fall.
HE AIN’T “PEYTON” – BUT HE MIGHT BE “JARRETT”
JG and Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey had a lot in common. Both started the season in one spot, lost their job due to poor play, returned to the field due to injuries, and began playing better football. In fact, both started playing markedly better football.
Fittingly, both guys were ineffective for broad swaths of the Gator Bowl, and the only numbers they put up were ones that involved throwing wide open passes to guys wearing the opposing jersey. Neither QB threw a touchdown pass, and how about this for uncannily similar:
JG: 18/31 for 221, 0 TD, 2 INT
PR: 20/34 for 227, 0 TD, 1 INT
Credit the Vols defense. IU played above their average defensively, but Guarantano was as inaccurate as he could possibly have been for much of the game, so even if the coverage stunk, it wouldn’t have mattered…unless Marquez Callaway was seven feet tall.
Losing this game would have been a sour note to end the season on for Tennessee. While it wasn’t a virtuoso performance, it was historic in that FBS teams in 2019 were 0-471 when trailing by 13 points with five minutes to go. Tennessee did something nobody else has, while also holding onto the second longest win streak in the country (or they will have that descriptor after January 13), with only either LSU or Clemson in front of them.
8-5 feels so much better than 7-6, even if the bowl win is essentially meaningless in the grand scheme of football. This was nice for Knoxville and nice for Jeremy Pruitt, and the grit and toughness to come back and assist Indiana in its choke job reflected Pruitt’s own mentality. This isn’t a team that’s going to quit, because their coach proved on a few occasions this season that he wouldn’t quit on them, and that he’d do anything it took to stick up for them, even when tough love was necessary.
Would 8-5 next year be good enough for Vols fans? That’s the question we’ll have to answer. It might depend upon some of the “8” if that was still the number. If Florida was one of them, I’d say yes. This is a team that will have to replace some outstanding seniors, which won’t be easy, but with a recruiting class currently ranked in the top ten, Pruitt is starting to bring in some groceries from a fancy supermarket, like The Fresh Market or Whole Foods. Places I’ve never actually walked into…
Well, except for that four hours I worked for The Fresh Market in 1999. They shouldn’t have put me working with raw meat and fish back then. I wasn’t ready. I never came back off my first lunch break. Just not a good fit. Like Freddie Kitchens in Cleveland.