Heading into Saturday’s contest between Tennessee and No. 9 Florida, there was a narrative floating around that the Vols weren’t as bad their 1-2 record indicated, and the Gators weren’t actually the ninth-best team in the country.
That narrative was quickly shredded into a million different pieces by the time halftime rolled around in the Swamp.
To adequately sum up Tennessee’s afternoon, one could point to UT’s seven penalties for 75 yards –which was enough to win the fans in attendance at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium free queso — rather than the Vols’ four turnovers.
“They (Florida) created explosive plays in the throw game,” Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt said following the Vols’ 34-3 loss to the Gators. “[Florida] scored touchdowns in the red area, got turnovers from us, didn’t have near the penalties or mistakes that we made.
“We’re not good enough to beat a good team if we don’t play kind of mistake free.”
Tennessee (1-3, 0-1 SEC) had opportunities to grab the momentum early in the game, but they squandered it each and every time.
Florida (4-0, 2-0 SEC) scored a touchdown on the opening drive of the game with ease, but the Vols had a chance to tie it on the following drive. Instead, they shot themselves in the foot.
Redshirt sophomore offensive lineman K’Rojhn Calbert was called for a questionable personal foul call that turned what would have been a 2nd-and-5 from the Florida 37-yard line to a 1st-and-20 on the Vols’ 48-yard line. The drive resulted in a punt after the Vols couldn’t make up the necessary yardage for a first down.
The Gators fumbled twice on their second possession. Warren Burrell recovered the first Florida fumble, but he was ruled out-of-bounds on his recovery, which allowed the Gators to maintain possession. UF fumbled two plays later when quarterback Kyle Trask was sacked by Daniel Bituli. Henry To’o To’o recovered the fumble to give the ball back to the offense and yet again, the unit squandered the golden opportunity.
Tennessee began on the 19-yard line after that recovered fumbled, and they immediately reached the 3-yard line following a couple of positive runs. On second-and-goal, Guarantano had Austin Pope wide open for a touchdown, but a Gator defender made a nice play on the ball to bat it down. Then on third-and-goal, Guarantano threw to an open Jauan Jennings in the end zone.
The ball went right through Jennings’ hands, and Florida’s Trey Dean dove and picked off the pass before it hit the ground.
Instead of it being tied at 7-all, or maybe even with the Vols possessing a 14-7 lead, Florida led 7-0 following the turnover.
The first quarter was a sign of things to come for the remainder of the game — a game of missed opportunities because of poor execution.
“We had some opportunities early in the game, moving the football,” Tennessee’s second-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt said to reporters after the game. “That’s two drives with opportunities to put points on the board that we don’t.”
In the second quarter, two Guarantano throws sparked a nightmare situation for Guarantano, Pruitt, and Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
Guarantano had Dominick Wood-Anderson wide open on 1st-and-10 thanks to a coverage bust in the Florida secondary. It would have likely resulted in an 83-yard touchdown for Wood-Anderson, but Guarantano threw an errant pass that was nowhere near him. Then, five plays later, Guarantano and Marquez Callaway had a miscommunication. The fourth-year quarterback thought Callaway was running a hitch route, but he ran a go-route instead, and Guarantano threw the ball right to Florida’s Marco Wilson for his second interception of the day.
Instead of it being a 7-7 game or possessing a 21-7 lead had Tennessee taken advantage of all of its opportunities, the Vols trailed 10-0 after Florida converted the Guarantano interception into a field goal.
“I think Jarrett (Guarantano) has lots of ability to be a really good player,” Pruitt added. “And I’ve said that over and over.
“But there are times where you kind of have to take the bull by the horns and say ‘let’s go.’ Got to make some plays. You have to have an impact on the people around you.”
On the two offensive possessions to end the first half, Tennessee went three-and-out both times. The Vols’ defense played fairly well during the opening 30 minutes, but they allowed Florida to march 61 yards down the field on nine plays to take a 17-0 lead entering the half. A fourth down conversion at the goal line as time expired in the half was the final nail in that coffin.
Guarantano’s two interceptions and zero points on the board resulted in his benching. A week after making his collegiate debut, true freshman Brian Maurer entered the game.
“We made a few mistakes there (at quarterback), so we went with Brian (Maurer), and to get Jarrett (Guarantano) settled down a little bit,” Pruitt explained when asked about the quarterback change. “Brian came in and did a couple things.
“He had a really good drive right down the field. Right there at the end he threw a ball into triple coverage. If he throws it on the other side, it’s probably a walk-in touchdown. So there are plays out there like that, that we left out there a little bit today and have in the past, which has hurt our production offensively.”
Maurer led the Vols down the field on the opening drive of the second half for a field goal, Tennessee’s first points of the game. Things spiraled out of control after that lone positive sign, though.
Florida responded with a touchdown to push its lead to 24-3, and then Maurer threw an interception while trying to do too much. The defense responded to the Gators’ touchdown by forcing back-to-back interceptions, but the last four possessions for Tennessee’s offense resulted in a punt, an Eric Gray fumble, a three-and-out, and the clock running out at the end of the game.
“I think a lot of times we’re holding ourselves back,” Tennessee junior offensive lineman Trey Smith said after the game. “It’s not necessarily what the other teams are doing. At the end of the day, we’ve got to execute a lot better.”
With the offense struggling to execute, the defense did a fairly good job of keeping the Vols in the game despite consistently facing adverse situations. Trask, who was making his first start since his freshman year of high school in place of the injured Feleipe Franks, picked the secondary apart, however.
The redshirt junior threw two interceptions, but Trask ultimately finished 20-of-28 for 293 yards and two touchdowns along with those two picks. He faced very little pressure, and Tennessee’s secondary provided him with plenty of room to throw the football.
“This kid (Kyle Trask) played well last week, too” Pruitt said. “Played well last week, played good today.
“Bottom line is we let them create too many explosive plays offensively, to make it easy on them, then we kind of settled in a little bit. Just too many turns on defense and too many short fields.”
Tennessee enters its first open week of the season with a 1-3 record for the first time since 2008. With a week of nothing but practice coming up, Pruitt hinted that every position on the team was open moving forward.
“It’s a production-based business,” Pruitt explained. “We got so many young guys that are itching to play, but they’re not hardly ready.
“Maybe in the next two weeks we can get some of these guys (ready). And it will help us develop some depth and competition a little bit. Then we have some other guys that are a little bit older that, they need to mature and learn to play a little bit too.”
No. 3 Georgia comes to town in two weeks before the Vols welcome Mississippi State to town. Then, the Vols made a trip to No. 2 Alabama before returning home to face South Carolina.
Contests against Georgia and the Crimson Tide can be chalked up as losses at this point. The two games against Mississippi State and the Gamecocks, however, are winnable. But they’re only winnable if the Vols learn to take advantage of the breaks that come their way and learn to execute.
Until then, it’s only going to continue to get uglier before it becomes pretty again.