In the wake of the Vols’ heartbreaking 27-24 loss to South Carolina, fans are confused, frustrated and just down right mad. Another conference game has taught us more about this developing team. Here is what we learned:
1. The Offensive Line Can Manage
Despite missing its best player, the offensive line gave a stellar performance outside of penalties (more on that in a moment). It will get overshadowed because Marcus Tatum got beat on the last offensive play of the game, which resulted in Jarrett Guarantano fumbling the ball on fourth down. This was probably the unit’s best game when you consider the competition. The sack on Guarantano was the second of the game. That is right on pace with their average for the season. The difference for them in this game was executing on run plays. They still lack leverage between the tackles, but in this game they set the edge pretty consistently. Most are undersized, but they are athletic. That versatility led to providing Tennessee’s most efficient rushing attack versus a Power-5 opponent this year. A healthy mix of Tim Jordan, Ty Chandler and Carlin Fils-aime resulted in 4.2 yards per carry.
2. JG Is Consistent
Guarantano continues to be efficient through the air. He completed nearly 70 percent of his passes. However, this was quite a different gameplan. Guarantano continued to slice the South Carolina defense with intermediate throws. Swings, screens and hitches were the theme of the day. Out of 27 completions, the longest pass was 20 yards. It was a screen pass to Josh Palmer in the third quarter.
He also showed flashes of evading pressure. He rushed seven times for 10 yards. One scramble resulted in a first down. His toughness and accuracy can be counted on, but he is also consistently poor in other areas. The redshirt sophomore still continues to struggle throwing on the run. His pocket awareness is still bothersome. On the aforementioned last offensive play, Guarantano had ample time and even looked at an open Chandler in the flats. D.J. Wonnum broke free from Tatum, but Guarantano had an option with a high percentage for conversion. Chandler and crew had been making guys miss in open space all night.
Most of Guarantano’s passes were at or behind the line of scrimmage. To put the chances of conversion in perspective, Tennessee ended the day with 23 first downs and was 11-of-16 on third downs with a heavy dose of intermediate completions. The good news for Guarantano is that these issues are correctable.
3. Penalty Issues Linger
The Vols were penalized many times during the Alabama game. As Jeremy Pruitt stated last week, “There are some guys in this game that showed this game was way too big for them.” Frustration mounted in that game, which resulted inexcusable fouls. That trend continued against the Gamecocks. The narrative was different, though. The Vols were up for this challenge. They scored first and led for the majority of the game, but penalties were still a problem. The worrisome part is that it seems to be the same variety over and over. False starts and unsportsmanlike conduct are the Vols’ favorite infractions. These could easily be avoided. If they were on Saturday, the result of the game would be probably be different.
4. Coaching Is Better, But Not Clutch
This may have been Tennessee’s best offensive gameplan to date in 2018. Many people would point to the Auburn game, which I could agree was well-constructed. However, the upset on the Plains was more so a result of players making plays versus a methodical gameplan. Offensive coordinator Tyson Helton mapped out South Carolina’s defense and took advantage of what they gave him. It was obvious that the Gamecocks were not going to give up anything deep. They had over-the-top coverage for most of the game while corners played off. Tennessee made them pay for a majority of the game.
It was only in crunch-time that Helton and Pruitt stubbed their toes. First, it was Pruitt taking a timeout with him into halftime. The Vols had just given up their first touchdown of the game with 49 seconds to go in the half to make it 14-9. Defensive tackle Shy Tuttle had just blocked an extra point attempt. With one timeout remaining, the Vols ran the ball with Chandler twice for a first down. South Carolina dared Tennessee to keep the drive alive by calling a timeout of its own. But after a first down and the ball on the Tennessee 37, the Vols conceded with 42 seconds remaining.
In the second half, it was Pruitt’s decision to go for it on fourth down deep in field goal range that leaves many in doubt. With 13 minutes remaining and the game tied at 24, Pruitt elected to go for it on the South Carolina 35. The Vols needed seven yards, but came away with none.
5. Where Is The Run Defense?
Maybe this one should be filed under coaching miscues, as well. The front seven had a disaster of a day, especially in the second half. It is not ideal when your leading tacklers are safeties. Nigel Warrior led the way with nine. Todd Kelly, Jr. saw the most action of the season and finished with six. Outside of Tuttle making an appearance with an interception and blocked PAT, the defensive front was quiet.
South Carolina gashed the Vols defense worse than Alabama did. The 224 rushing yards were the most given up since the Georgia game. At least then, the defense held firm once the ball was in their territory. The Vols couldn’t stop the bleeding in the second half. With a couple of big plays sprinkled in by Jake Bentley, South Carolina seemed virtually unstoppable running the ball. The 5.6 yards per rush was the most given up since the Florida debacle. Only this time, Tennessee didn’t give up six turnovers.
They were in this game. They essentially led the whole way. If the defense would have countered the run and came up with a stop, erroneous coaching, quarterback tendencies and inexcusable penalties wouldn’t be at fault for a tough loss. They would be topics of correctable mistakes after a big win.