Everything that could have gone wrong for Tennessee during the first two weeks of the season went wrong.
Whether it was the performance on the field, a boat from the Vol Navy sinking, or even a member of the Pride of the Southland Band passing out during the halftime performance, everything went wrong over the course of a 14-day span for the Vols.
Week one’s loss to a Sun Belt team that had never beaten a power five opponent was the result of poor effort and the inability to line up correctly on the defensive side of the ball. Against BYU, it was poor quarterback play and a defensive gaffe that resulted in Tennessee’s first 0-2 start since 1988.
But on day No. 21 of Jeremy Pruitt’s second season as head coach, after everything had gone wrong to begin the year, everything finally went right.
“It’s really nice for these guys,” Pruitt said of the win following the game. “We got a good win and got five turnovers today, which was very important.
“We didn’t turn the ball over, which was probably the difference in the game. We created some opportunities in special teams.”
Turnovers had been an issue for the Vols through the first two games of the season. Against Georgia State and BYU, Tennessee produced a grand total of one turnover, which came on a sack-fumble from LaTrell Bumphus in the season-opener. Against the Cougars, the closest UT came to a forced turnover was when a snap hit a receiver streaking across the field in motion. But BYU recovered the botched snap.
On Saturday, Tennessee intercepted four passes, recovered a fumble, and blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown.
“We’ve not really changed the way we’ve coached,” Pruitt responded when asked about the five turnovers his defense forced against the Mocs. “It seems like when you get turnovers sometimes it comes in bunches.
“There’s a certain attitude and a way that you play that, to me, indicates whether you get turnovers or not. If you’re running around hitting people, or if you get your hands up and you bat balls, if you’ve got a lot of people swarming and peppering the ball carrier, there seems to be more balls out.”
The defense had struggled to force turnovers to begin the season, but the offense had struggled to hold on to the football.
Against Georgia State, Ty Chandler fumbled once while Jarrett Guarantano threw an interception and fumbled while being sacked. Then against BYU, Guarantano threw his third interception of the season. The redshirt junior threw three picks all of last season, but he had tossed two picks in the first two games of 2019.
On Saturday against UTC, Guarantano only attempted eight passes, but he was efficient nonetheless. Guarantano completed seven passes for 142 yards and a career-high three touchdown passes.
“We came out and executed pretty well,” Guarantano said after the game. “There are obviously things that we need to clean up and fix, but going into this game, we wanted to harp on details, and we wanted to harp on toughness. I think we got some of that done, but we’re going back to the drawing board.”
The previous two weeks have been rough on the redshirt junior out of New Jersey. Guarantano struggled mightily against Georgia State and BYU, causing fans to call for his job.
Though Guarantano said he learned more about himself during a time period he described as something he’s never been through, the confidence in him throughout Tennessee’s program never swayed.
“Jarrett is our quarterback, and he’ll be our quarterback until we decide that he’s not,” Pruitt said. “He deserves to be our quarterback; he’s outplayed everybody.”
Guarantano himself didn’t lose confidence, either.
“No, I wasn’t raised that way,” Guarantano added when asked if his confidence ever wavered following the slow start. “I’m happy to get over the hump and start to feel like myself again.”
Guarantano regaining confidence heading into Tennessee’s game with Florida next week was of the utmost importance, but so was getting the backup quarterbacks some reps. History tells us that at some point, Guarantano is going to miss time due to injury. That’s been the case the previous two years as a result of Guarantano being relentlessly beat up behind a poor offensive line.
Last year, though, the Vols had Keller Chryst — a graduate transfer from Stanford who had plenty of playing experience under his belt. The backups this year, however, had never taken a snap at the collegiate level until Saturday.
“We put Brian (Maurer) in because we had a few more run plays for Brian, which you saw later on in the game,” Pruitt said. “That had nothing to do with who has out-practiced who.
“The last two weeks, we were going to put J.T. (Shrout) in the game first, but Brian had a few run plays in there that we were going to let him do. So, we decided to go that route.”
Despite being 0-of-2 through the air, Maurer rushed for his first career collegiate touchdown to put the Vols up 45-0 in the third quarter. The true freshman rushed for 16 yards on four carries.
Shrout’s Tennessee debut wasn’t as smooth. The redshirt freshman finished the afternoon 3-of-9 through the air for 23 yards. Shrout got off to a slow start, misfiring on his first three collegiate attempts. On his first attempt, he was picked off after missing the intended receiver high, but he was bailed out on a roughing the passer call. Shrout would then complete three of his next five attempts, setting up Brent Cimaglia to nail a 34-yard touchdown.
“They both did some good things today, and they both also made some horrible decisions today, but that’s expected,” Pruitt stated. “Today was their first opportunities, which is why we’ve been wanting to get them out there.”
Saturday marked a step in the right direction. It was a 45-0 win in which Tennessee was clearly the superior team, but it was also a game the Vols needed to check off multiple boxes. Tennessee did just that by forcing turnovers, taking care of the football, instilling confidence in the starting quarterback, getting the backup quarterbacks their first taste of college football, and even getting senior linebacker Daniel Bituli back from injury.
The beginning of Year Two under Jeremy Pruitt was abysmal and embarrassing. But the season that matters most begins next Saturday in the Swamp, and the Vols can rewrite their script for the year.