A rainy start to a very big game for Tennessee didn’t seem to damper the mood for Vols fans. After incurring a few weather delays, the Vols and Vanderbilt finally hit the field, getting the game underway on a cool and cloudy Saturday night.
Vanderbilt picked off a Jarrett Guarantano pass early in the 1st quarter. This led to a four-play, 8-yard drive for the Dores that led to a field goal, making it 3-0. Not the start Tennessee was hoping for, especially with so much time waiting on the weather to cooperate.
After being forced into another three-and-out, Tennessee punted the ball back to the Dores. After the Tennessee defense got after quarterback Riley Neal on the next possession, the Dores were forced to punt it back to the Vols. If you came here looking for some sort of offensive slugfest, then you were in for a long night. After Guarantano started the game 0-for-7, the Vols figured out it had a true freshman ready to explode.
Jauan Jennings caught his first pass of the game at the 6:26 mark in the 1st quarter. Two plays later it was Eric Gray with a huge 56-yard touchdown run. It finally looked like the Tennessee offense woke up, deciding they were going to try and beat Vanderbilt with their run game, which has been hard to find over the season.
The Tennessee defense held their own in the 1st quarter, which led to the Vols finally putting together a sustained drive. Guarantano led Tennessee on a seven-play, 47-yard touchdown drive, capped off by Guarantano hitting Dominick Wood-Anderson for a six-yard score in the back of the end zone. The offense was starting to find its groove.
Vanderbilt couldn’t get anything going on the ensuing drive with 9:07 left in the 2nd quarter. The Tennessee defense brought multiple blitzes, forcing Neal to throw it away on 3rd down. It didn’t seem as though the Vols defense was holding anything back.
After a 57-yard punt, it took Gray one play.
Gray, who had just scored his first ever Tennessee touchdown, took the snap and ran 94 yards straight to the checkerboards. The Vols OL didn’t even have enough time to protect, as Gray flew right past them. The Vols led 21-3 at the 8:28 mark of the 2nd quarter.
Gray rushed for 246 yards, which is the most yards ever by a true freshman in school history, breaking a record set by Jamal Lewis in 1997. It was also the fifth-most rushing yards in a single game by a Tennessee player. Jeremy Pruitt had this to say about his performance: ”He got hot there. You think about a record at the University of Tennessee. Think about all those good runners that have come through here. That says a whole heck of a lot of everyone involved, starting with the quarterback getting us in the right place and the offensive staff doing a heck of a job game planning. (Also) the front, the tight ends, the wide receivers blocking downfield and finishing the run. It was a great accomplishment.”
The Tennessee offense took over at the 4:23 mark in the 2nd quarter, after the defense forced Vanderbilt into a punt.
The offense didn’t produce any points, though Gray was sure trying again. Vanderbilt took over, but the Tennessee defense held tough again, led by senior linebacker Daniel Bituli. The Vols went into halftime leading 21-3.
Tennessee kicked off to Vanderbilt to start the 2nd half, and again, the Vols defense held them in check. Neal tried multiple times to throw the screen, but was tipped on two different occasions on the drive. Tennessee took over after the Dores punt. This was becoming an occurring theme on Saturday.
Gray hit the 200-yard mark on the Vols’ first drive of the 2nd half, and it was a welcomed sign for Tennessee fans hoping for some kind of run game. Gray had scored two TD’s on the night, breaking out of the shell. Credit the OL for opening up the holes for Gray, but that was some elusive speed from the freshman.
With 13:01 remaining, Vanderbilt was driving down the field, facing a 4th down, which they picked up on Neal scramble. It was the first time in the game that the Vols were in danger of giving up a TD. Neal connected with Kalija Lipscomb for the TD, capping off a 10-play, 90-yard drive. The Vols only led 21-10 with 11:34 left in the game.
The Vols had controlled most of the game, in one form or the other, but giving up that TD gave Vandy life. So, when the Vols needed a few big plays, they started with Marquez Callaway, who came across the middle for 19 yards. Jennings came across the middle, catching and running for a 50-yard gain to the Vandy 3. It was a welcomed play for Tennessee fans, who were desperate to cheer for the senior.
The Vols capitalized a few plays later, as Gray ran it in from four yards out, giving Tennessee the 28-10 4th quarter lead. Tennessee drove 75 yards on seven plays for the TD.
That would be the final play before the game was halted again due to weather. At the 7:38 mark in the 4th quarter, a lightning strike caused another weather delay.
Pruitt was asked about the offensive philosophy heading into this game: “It is hard to predict the weather. When I left the hotel, I didn’t think it was going to rain until halftime. Then we had a lightning delay to start the game, so it obviously changed. I think our staff did a good job adjusting to it. Early in the game, the ball was wet. You could tell. We didn’t throw the ball or catch the ball nearly as well as we have done in the past. We haven’t run the football and our guys did a nice job today.”
As play resumed, Tennessee kicked off to Vanderbilt, with maybe over 7,000 people still waiting to send off the Vols seniors, one final time.
Tennessee and Vanderbilt traded punts after the two teams resumed play. Vanderbilt switched up QB’s and went with Deuce Wallace, who didn’t have much luck in his time on the field. The Tennessee defense came up with a few more stops, with help from Matthew Butler and the Tennessee defensive line.
Pruitt had this to say about his defense: “To start with, we turned the football over early in the game. I don’t know how many yards they gained, but it wasn’t a whole lot there. We held them to a field goal, which was huge there when it comes to momentum. That is what you have to do. You have to put the fire out. I thought the defense played really well, except for one drive. We made several mental errors on that one drive that they put together there that resulted in a touchdown. We probably had three chances to get off the field there and we didn’t.”
With 3:13 remaining, As Justice Shelton-Moseley was returning a punt, Jennings came in for a big hit that went all the way into the Vols sideline. After a few seconds, there was pushing and shoving going on around the Tennessee bench, which led to Vanderbilt players and some coaches running towards midfield to try and help their teammate. It didn’t look like a pretty scene, but being in the end zone, I could only see so much.
On a night in which Tennessee broke a three game losing streak to Vanderbilt, they also extended their own winning streak to five games. This team has continued to get better as the season has worn on. Finishing the regular season at 7-5 is an accomplishment that a good amount of Tennessee fans couldn’t fathom, after starting the year 1-4. The players have never stopped believing in what their head coach has been preaching, and the results show this.
Pruitt had this to say about the growth of this football program since last year: “Unless you were here the first day that I walked in this building, I don’t think you understand how far we actually have come. Coach (Phillip) Fulmer was here. It’s a long way, I can assure you of that. Our guys, I’m excited for them – the way they feel, the confidence they have. We’re playing with so much more confidence. They’re believing in themselves, believing in each other. If you think back over the last five wins, there are just different points in the game where somebody stepped up, a unit stepped up and found a way. That’s what good football teams do. You have to find a way, even when you’re maybe not playing at your best. I look at what our assistant coaches have done, keeping these guys together, keeping them believing. And them finding a way, finding a way to get it done. And it’s been different guys. Tonight, it was Eric Gray on offense. It’s been different kind of all through the season. I just think it’s a mark of guys that believe in what we’re trying to get done, they believe in each other and they believe in themselves.”
This group of seniors decided after the Florida game that they wanted to finish their book with a story of redemption, it’s been one crazy story. Trey Smith, who might’ve played his last game in Neyland Stadium said this about the season and how far they’ve come since Georgia State loss: “Honestly, we sit back and think about it a lot. It says a lot about this team’s character. It also shows the passion that the coaches have. They were on us day-in and day-out. We went to work every day, no matter how bad the outcome was and what everyone else was saying. No matter what they said, at the end of the day we bought into Coach Pruitt’s vision and we worked our butts off every day. When you do that and you believe in the system, you get the results you see.”
It’s been a wild season for this team and fans. With that horrible start to the season in September, to the wackiness in Tuscaloosa and now a five-game winning streak to end the regular season. This team didn’t quit, they relied on their leaders to push them through hard times, they had special performances from freshmen and they’ve now laid down a foundation for the future. The Vols will lose some players that were a huge part in Pruitt’s rebuild, the way he wanted to build a program.
This season has flown by, in my opinion. But, because a group of players didn’t give in when it could’ve been easy to do, they’ll now have an opportunity to write one more chapter, one more game in their redemption story.