Tennessee is coming off, arguably, it’s most frustrating loss of the season.
In a 27-24 loss to South Carolina over the weekend, the Vols jumped out to a 14-3 lead in the first half. Tennessee even led 21-9 at the beginning of the third quarter. But then, the Vols got in the way of themelves.
On the night, Tennessee committed nine penalties for 75 yards. Many of the flags that were thrown were pre-snap penalties or unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that killed drives and contributed to points for South Carolina.
“It was a tough loss,” Tennessee junior receiver Marquez Callaway said on Monday. “It was well-deserved by South Carolina. We didn’t play the full 60 minutes, so it was a good lesson for us.”
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Callaway led UT’s receiving room, hauling in a career-high nine passes for 86 yards. The junior now leads Tennessee in receiving on the season with 27 receptions for 372 yards. He’s averaging 13.8 yards per catch.
Against South Carolina’s third down defense, which is one of the best in the country, Tennessee was 11-for-16. Jarrett Guarantano looked in the direction of Callaway on multiple third downs, connecting for several first downs.
“We had a great game plan going into it,” Callaway said. “We knew how they were going to play on third down, so we built off that and we executed the plays, and everything opened up for us.
“We knew they were going to play a lot of man and three-deep, especially on third down, and they were going to bring pressure. So, we had to get the ball out of his hands quick.”
It was the second game this season that Tennessee’s offense was wildly successful on third down. Against Auburn, it led Tennessee to a win. Although Tennessee lost to South Carolina, Callaway maintains their mindset must stay the same.
“We have to, to stay on the field,” Callaway explained. “That’s what we try to do, sustain drives and be consistent, especially on third down so we can keep the drive going and let our defense rest.”
While Callaway was terrific against South Carolina, he also dropped a pass and committed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty during crucial moments. Both plays came late in the game and halted two Tennessee possessions in their tracks.
As for the dropped pass, it cost Tennessee field position when the Vols were driving down the field in the fourth quarter of a tie ball game.
“I was thinking about getting the ball and getting up field to make something happen, but I have to catch the ball first,” Callaway explained. “That’s a big drop on me. That could have had us in fourth-and-two, but instead, we had fourth-and-six. That’s a critical drop on my part.”
As critical as the drop was, the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was just as crucial. Though it can reasonably be viewed as a weak call by the official, the veteran receiver understands he still has to maintain his cool in between the white lines. Even if he thought he was playing to the echo of the whistle.
“There’s two sides to it,” Callaway said. “My side and their side. Obviously, it went their way. I thought I was playing through the whistle and apparently it wasn’t.
“We (Tennessee) take full responsibility. Some calls we could have avoided, but we have to take it and learn from it. Coach Pruitt is going to call you out, and we’re going to have to man up and take it. Only way to do it is with our brothers, letting them see our mistake.”
Tennessee will have to learn from its mistakes in a hurry. The SEC Network noted throughout the broadcast just how important a win over South Carolina would be to the Vols’ chances of making a bowl game. With a win, Tennessee had a 77 percent chance of making a bowl game. With the loss, Tennessee’s chances dropped all the way to just 22 percent.
“We play every year to try to make it to a bowl, but first, try to make it to the SEC Championship,” Callaway said. “The next best thing is to try to make it to a bowl. But right now, we have to focus on this game coming up this week.”
The 15 extra practices for such a young football team would be crucial for Jeremy Pruitt as he sets out to make a bowl game in year one. Tennessee will have its work cut out for them, though, as they finish with three straight SEC games after this weekend.
Two of the three remaining conference games, Kentucky and Missouri, are at home.
“We always look forward to playing at home,” Callaway said. “Not only for our fans, but our families come. For me, it’s a shorter drive for my family to get here.”
The friendly confines of Neyland Stadium will be a welcome sight for the Vols, but it doesn’t guarantee success. After all, Tennessee has played much better away from home this season. Look at their performances against Florida and Alabama in Neyland compared to their performances against Auburn and South Carolina on the road.
Tennessee is back in action against Charlotte in its annual homecoming game this Saturday. Kickoff is slated for 4 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.