It was ugly. It was disappointing. It was uninspiring. But at least it was a win.
The Vols stumbled their way to a 14-3 victory over Charlotte on Saturday to improve to 4-5 on the season. But the win won’t be one to look back on fondly for Tennessee fans.
Tennessee’s offense managed a measly 192 yards of offense, and they had negative three yards rushing until late in the fourth quarter. The offense managed only one score, and that came in the first quarter on a 16-yard pass from Jarrett Guarantano to Josh Palmer. The Vols’ only other score of the game came on an 82-yard punt return by Marquez Callaway.
The Vols’ defense made sure the game never really got closer than 14-3, and they contained the Miners’ offense for almost the entire game. Charlotte was only able to get a field goal for their efforts on offense, and UT managed to escape a potentially extremely embarrassing loss.
Here are our five biggest takeaways from the Vols’ lackluster win over Charlotte.
Rushing Attack Fired Blanks
Tennessee’s run game has been dismal for most of the season. But their worst performance of the year by far came on Saturday.
The Vols rarely had positive runs against the 49ers defense, and once you factored in sacks into the rushing total, Tennessee came away with 20 rushing yards on 26 carries on the day.
Tennessee’s leading rusher was Jeremy Banks, who finished with 24 yards on 11 carries.
Charlotte came into Saturday’s game with the No. 6 rushing defense in the country, allowing less than 90 rushing yards per game to opponents. But they’re a Conference USA team, and they hadn’t faced a Power Five opponent all season till Saturday.
The Vols’ performance on the ground was pitiful no matter how good the opposing defense was, and it was one of the worst rushing efforts in Tennessee history.
Defense Held Their Own
Though Tennessee’s offense failed to show up on Saturday, the Vols’ defense more than came prepared and played lights out.
Tennessee’s defense held Charlotte to just 3.9 yards per play and 244 yards of total offense. The 49ers were 5-of-15 on third down and didn’t convert on both of their fourth down attempts. The Vols totaled three sacks and eight tackles for loss in the game and contained the 49ers run game to just 2.5 yards per carry.
The Vols forced a turnover late in the game when Bryce Thompson picked off a pass with a minute left in the fourth quarter. But that was it in terms of takeaways. All in all, though, the defense more than did their part on Saturday.
Shades of UMass 2017
Last year, Tennessee let lowly UMass hang around in a similarly ugly game and only emerged with a 17-14 win in September of 2017. Saturday’s game had a very similar feel to last year’s showing against the Minutemen.
While it never really felt like Charlotte was a threat to win like UMass was last season, the Vols still didn’t put their foot on the throttle and let a clearly out-matched opponent hang around much longer than they should’ve. The poor play didn’t allow Tennessee to play more young players like coaches wanted and needed to.
Saturday should’ve been a valuable game for a lot of Tennessee’s backups. And while some of the Vols second and third string players did get playing time, it wasn’t nearly as significant as it should’ve been. The starters had to play many more snaps than they needed, and starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano played the entire game.
Charlotte isn’t nearly as bad of a team as UMass was last year. But this game will go down as a wasted opportunity for Tennessee.
Finally a Special Teams TD
For the first time since 2016, the Vols scored a touchdown on a punt return.
Marquez Callaway got the scoring started with an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown. That punt return score marked the first time the Vols had a punt get returned for a touchdown since Callaway himself did it as a freshman in 2016 against Tennessee Tech.
Charlotte has nobody to blame but themselves for the score, though. Originally, they punted the ball and had it bounce out of bounds inside the UT five. But they were flagged for illegal formation on that punt, and the second one ended up going for a touchdown.
If not for that score, who knows how this game turns out.
It Only Gets Tougher
There isn’t really an excuse for the Vols’ performance on Saturday, and their remaining three games aren’t going to be any easier than this one.
Tennessee will host a 7-2 Kentucky squad next weekend, play a 5-4 Missouri team that next week, then travel to Nashville to take on a Vanderbilt team that’s more than capable of beating the Vols.
The Vols better hope Saturday was more about them just overlooking the 49ers rather than the tough schedule they’ve played thus far catching up to them.