5 Observations: No. 17 West Virginia 40, Vols 14

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    Photo Credit: Mason Burgin/RTI

    The Vols started slow, adjusted, and then got ran out of the stadium.

    Tennessee fell to No. 17 West Virginia 40-14 to start off the Jeremy Pruitt era. The Vols fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter, responded with a long touchdown drive to cut it to 10-7, and the Mountaineers only held a 13-7 advantage at halftime.

    Then, the floodgates opened.

    West Virginia scored three touchdowns and amassed over 200 yards of offense in the third quarter alone, and that was all they needed to open up the 2018 season with a victory.

    Tennessee played three true freshmen for a lot of the game against West Virginia’s potent passing attack, and the Vols struggled to stop the Mountaineers through the air. The Vols’ pass rush consistently was stifled, and the secondary got tired.

    West Virginia quarterback Will Grier finished with a career-high 429 passing yards on 25-of-34 passing and five touchdowns.

    The loss marked the first time since 2008 that Tennessee lost a season opener. Tennessee’s loss to West Virginia was their first loss to start a season since they lost 27-24 in overtime to UCLA to begin the 2008 season. It’s also the first time a Tennessee head coach lost their first game as head coach of the Vols since Johnny Majors saw his UT squad get defeated 27-17 by Cal back in 1977 to start his tenure.

    Despite the loss, there are still some positives to take away for the Vols. Today was no moral victory, but there’s plenty to be optimistic about moving forward.

    Here are our five observations from the Vols’ loss to No. 17 West Virginia.

    Third Quarter Killer

    Tennessee gave up big plays in the first half, but their 8-minute, 47-second scoring drive in the second quarter helped spark the offense and defense both.

    Then a one-hour, five-minute weather delay at halftime set things askew. And West Virginia used that time to adjust, scheme, and come out ready to roll.

    The Mountaineers piled on 20 points and 206 yards in the third quarter, and that’s when they took a commanding 33-14 lead. The Vols simply couldn’t stop WVU in the third quarter. They scored a touchdown on all three of their offensive possessions in the third quarter and ran away with the game.

    Tim Jordan Breaks Out

    One of the few highlights for the Vols in the game was the emergence of Tim Jordan at running back. Ty Chandler left the game early after taking a huge hit to the head, and Jordan became the bell cow at running back. And he didn’t disappoint.

    Jordan totaled 118 rushing yards and a touchdown on 20 carries while also catching two passes for 11 yards. He easily set career-highs in carries and yards. He totaled 117 yards of offense on 19 total touches all of last year.

    Tennessee’s offense found some room against West Virginia, but they couldn’t find enough to keep up with the Mountaineers’ electric offense. But Jordan was still a nice surprise.

    No Pressure

    The Vols were technically credited with two sacks on the afternoon, but it certainly didn’t feel like Tennessee’s pass rush affected Will Grier all that much in this game. Time and time again, Grier had four or five seconds (or more) to throw, and he carved up the Vols’ young secondary because of that.

    Tennessee played a lot of younger players in the secondary against West Virginia, and those young players needed a solid pass rush to do them some favors. Unfortunately for UT’s corners and safeties, they had no such luck on Saturday.

    Third Down Meltdown

    In the first half, the Vols did a good job stopping West Virginia on third down. They didn’t force the Mountaineers into many third downs (just three) in the first half, but when they did, they stood strong and stopped them every time.

    The second half was a completely different story.

    West Virginia converted their first five third downs of the second half and didn’t miss on a conversion on third down until their last one in the fourth quarter. They converted on a third-and-seven, a third-and-one, a third-and-four (for a touchdown), a third-and-11, and a third-and-one in the second half.

    The Vols, meanwhile, were just 5-of-14 on third down for the game. The Vols averaged a third-and-eight on their third down attempts for the game.

    Guarantano Looks Better

    Another slight positive for Tennessee was that Jarrett Guarantano looked improved from last season on his reads, throws, and confidence in the pocket. The redshirt sophomore finished with 172 passing yards on 19-of-25 passing and a touchdown. The only times he got sacked or pressured significantly happened when the Vols’ offensive line broke down and didn’t give him more than a couple seconds to observe the defense.

    Tennessee’s offensive line didn’t play up to standard on Saturday. But Guarantano looked much sharper and more crisp. How much of that was because of West Virginia’s inexperienced secondary and how much of that is because of Guarantano remains to be seen, but the Vols’ quarterback situation looks like it might be in a better spot right now than it was at the end of last year.

    Nathanael Rutherford
    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.