In typical Tennessee fashion, the Vols grasped defeat from the jaws of victory on Saturday night.
Despite leading 13-3 at halftime and leading 16-13 with a minute left in the game, Tennessee (0-2) found a way to lose to BYU (1-1) in front of a stunned Neyland Stadium crowd on Saturday. The Vols looked like a completely different team in the first half against BYU than they did against Georgia State last weekend, but then the second half told a different story.
The Cougars connected on a 64-yard pass with mere seconds left on the clock in regulation to set up a game-tying 33-yard field goal, and the game was sent into overtime.
In overtime, Tennessee’s defense couldn’t do anything to stop BYU, as the Cougars scored touchdowns on both of their possessions, with the second one giving them the walk-off victory, 29-26.
For Tennessee, the loss means the Vols fall to 0-2 to start the year. This is the first time since 1988 that the Vols have started a season winless in their first two games.
Here are our five biggest takeaways from Tennessee’s disappointing loss.
Second Half Defensive Collapse Again
In the first half, Tennessee’s defense looked like a completely different unit. The Vols were swarming, and the front seven was controlling BYU’s run game. The Cougars rushed for a total of negative four yards on the ground in the first half, and they were just 3-of-7 on third down.
Then, just like last week, the Vols’ defense became a sieve in the second half.
After allowing just 109 yards total and only 3.9 yards per play, Tennessee’s defense gave up a whopping 230 yards of offense in the second half and both overtime periods combined. BYU averaged 7.2 yards per play in the second half and overtime, and they gained 111 rushing yards on just 18 carries, good for a 6.2 yard per carry average.
Tennessee’s worst play of the night defensively is what kept the game alive and allowed BYU to send the game into overtime.
Facing a third down with the clock ticking down below 20 seconds, BYU’s Zach Wilson connected with Micah Simon for a 64-yard pass to give the Cougars a shot at a 33-yard field goal. The play happened because sophomore defensive back Alontae Taylor failed to cover Simon in time, and then Theo Jackson whiffed on a tackle shortly after Simon caught the ball. Simon sprinted down the field and was downed at the UT 16-yard-line, but not before he gained 64 yards.
The Vols’ defense couldn’t stop BYU in overtime, either. The Cougars scored touchdowns on both their possessions in overtime, and the final one sealed the deal and gave BYU the 29-26 victory. Both overtime possessions needed just three plays to find the end zone.
Word of the Night: Late
The stat sheet may show a mediocre night for Jarrett Guarantano as Tennessee’s quarterback, but those who watched the game know otherwise.
Guarantano didn’t play his worst game of his UT career, not even close. But Saturday’s performances was far from his best. In fact, he was a big reason Tennessee lost the game — or at least why they weren’t in a better position to win.
The redshirt junior made a handful of nice throws, but he was consistently late on a lot of his deliveries. He took a half second too long (or longer) on several throws that would’ve resulted in big gains or even touchdowns. His lone touchdown pass in regulation should’ve been picked off or at least batted down, but Jauan Jennings was in the right place at the right time to catch the tipped pass in the end zone.
Guarantano’s interception was a very bad throw where he never took his eyes off his intended target and didn’t see a defender in the area who stepped up and made the easy interception. It’s not like Guarantano’s target was open either; he was already covered well enough even without the roaming defender in position to intercept the pass.
Time and time again, Guarantano was late or misjudged his throws. And while the loss isn’t squarely all on his shoulders, Guarantano’s play was certainly a big reason why UT couldn’t pull out the victory on Saturday.
Far too many of UT’s possessions stalled out and resulted in field goals or ended in failed fourth down conversions because the offense was in no-man’s land or was trying to get a touchdown rather than a field goal. A lot of that had to do with the play and inaccurate passing of Guarantano.
Finally, Some Running Room
Last week, Tennessee had major issues running the ball against what should’ve been an inferior front seven. Against BYU, the Vols’ running backs found a lot of running room.
The Vols’ offensive line still struggled to consistently get a push, especially in short yardage situations. But both Ty Chandler and Eric Gray showed off their shiftiness and speed, and both put up impressive performances.
One of the few bright spots (aside from Jauan Jennings) was the effort by Chandler and Gray. Chandler nearly set a new career-high on the ground with his 154 rushing yards on 26 attempts. He ripped off a 53-yard run and fought for tough yardage despite not always getting the best blocking. Gray, meanwhile, consistently turned what looked like losses or short gains into good runs. He finished the night with 77 yards on 17 carries.
Still, the Vols’ ground attack wasn’t enough to overcome the deficiencies in other areas. A week after totaling 93 yards on the ground, Tennessee amassed 242 rushing yards against BYU. But the Vols didn’t score a single rushing touchdown, and they were consistently stymied in short yardage situations. The Vols were just 3-of-7 on third downs and four or fewer yards to go.
Losing the First (and Third) Down Battle
Tennessee’s third down offense was atrocious, but their first down offense wasn’t great either.
The Vols averaged just 5.3 yards per play on first down, but the second half saw them perform especially poorly on first down. Tennessee gained four yards or more just seven times out of 14 plays on a first down play in the second half, and they were very ineffective in overtime. The Vols’ offense had an incompletion, a run for no gain, and a one-yard run on first down in both overtime periods.
In total, the Vols were just 4-of-8 on first down for 72 yards, and they averaged just 4.1 yards per rush (21 carries, 86 yards) on first down.
BYU, meanwhile, picked up 5.6 yards per play on first down, and they were especially impressive on first down in the second half and overtime. The Cougars picked up four or more yards five times in the second half on 11 first down plays, and all but one of their first down plays in the overtime periods were big gains. BYU had a one-yard rush on first down in the first overtime, but their first touchdown came on a first down play, then they picked up 14 and seven yards on rushes on their other first down plays.
On third down, Tennessee held BYU to just 5-of-13 as a team on the money down. But UT’s offense was even worse on third down, converting a mere five of their 16 attempts (31.3 percent). Tennessee failed to pick up their only third-and-goal situation, and they were 3-of-7 on third and shorts (four yards or fewer). The Vols faced an average third down distance of 7.3 yards while BYU faced an average of 6.5 yards.
Guarantano’s interception came on a third down play.
After this loss, it’s hard not to imagine a ton of Vol fans will be checked out the rest of the season unless a miraculous upset victory happens.
With the Vols losing in disastrous fashion to Georgia State to start the season and with Saturday’s collapse against BYU, Tennessee is now 0-2 for the first time since 1988. And there aren’t many games left on the schedule that Vol fans have circled as possible wins.
Fans showed up pretty well on Saturday night for the Vols’ match-up with BYU. Over 92,000 fans were in attendance, and Neyland Stadium was loud. But next week’s game against UT-Chattanooga could see a historically empty Neyland Stadium since renovations brought it to over 100,000 capacity.
This could be a dark season ahead for Tennessee.