“Jarrett is a guy that will help us win football games down the road, I guarantee you that.”
Those were Jeremy Pruitt’s words last Saturday following the loss to Georgia. Starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano had been benched heading into the Vols’ match-up with the Bulldogs, and Tennessee turned to Brian Maurer at QB instead. The true freshman played well enough against the third-ranked Bulldogs to secure the start seven days later against Mississippi State.
Against State, Maurer threw two first half interceptions in the end zone. But despite the freshman mistakes, that’s not why Guarantano found himself in the game at quarterback in the second quarter.
Late in the second quarter, just before his second interception of the game, Maurer scrambled for a 13-yard gain on second down. He was upended in the midst of picking up the first down and ended up coming down hard on his head. Maurer finished the drive, but he was unable to finish the game due to a concussion.
Guarantano took over with 59 seconds remaining in the first half and Tennessee leading 7-3. He was able to orchestrate a scoring drive that resulted in a 49-yard field goal from Brent Cimaglia to extend the Vols’ lead to seven as the first half expired. When the game resumed after halftime, the redshirt junior did exactly what Pruitt claimed he would do seven days earlier — help Tennessee win a football game.
“He’s (Guarantano) done a nice job, he’s worked hard to be prepared when the moment comes,” Pruitt said following Tennessee’s 20-10 win over Mississippi State. “And we didn’t ask him to do a whole lot today. It’s not because it was him, it’s because of the way the game was going, right? He took an RPO out there, and it was a good play. Had a couple third down throws that were critical down there.
“That’s why I said it last time we were in here. He would help us win a game this year. He’ll help us win some more.”
Guarantano went on to finish 6-of-7 for 106 yards and a touchdown. Most importantly, he didn’t throw an interception. Guarantano was poised all afternoon and did exactly what the Vols asked him to do — manage the game while Tennessee’s backs bleed the clock.
Even with Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan combining for 122 rushing yards as the clock dwindled down, Guarantano still made some very big throws. In the second half, he was 3-of-3 for 65 yards on third down, picking up first downs on all three third downs in which Tennessee called a pass play.
“Jarrett played a hell of a game,” junior offensive lineman Trey Smith said after the game. “It’s a next-man-up scenario. When Jarrett’s name was called, he was ready to go, and he played his butt off today.”
While Guarantano was money on third down, the easiest throw of the day was a simple toss to Tyler Byrd in the fourth quarter. The senior receiver was running a hitch on 2nd-and-11 with 2:35 remaining in the game and with UT looking to drain the clock some more. Byrd made a defender miss following the catch and turned it up field for a 39-yard touchdown to put the game away.
“When you do things the right way, one play at a time, you kind of get rolling,” Byrd said. “I see people on both sides of the ball taking care of the football to hopefully put us in position to win these games.”
Byrd also had a crucial third down catch in the first half to keep a drive alive that resulted in Tennessee’s first touchdown of the game. The senior finished the game as the Vols’ leading receiver with three catches, 56 yards, and a touchdown
“We got the ball with eight minutes to go and put a really good drive together, finished it off there with the pass to (Tyler) Byrd,” Pruitt stated. “Converted a third down or two in there.”
With the Tennessee offense piecing together a win thanks to two unexpected contributors, the defense played their best game of the year. Pruitt’s unit picked off three passes, tallied seven sacks, and totaled 10.0 tackles for a loss.
Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill entered the game as the SEC’s leading rusher. No back was averaging more rushing yards per game than Hill with his 119 yard per game average. The Vols promptly put a stop to Hill’s success, holding him to just 13 rushing yards and 1.2 yards per carry.
“When you do what you’re supposed to do, most of the time you’re usually in the vicinity of whoever you’re guarding,” Pruitt said of his defense. “I think our guys did a really nice job gang tackling. I think our defensive staff done a phenomenal job putting a plan together, and our guys went and executed. We got some turnovers in the back end, which was big today.”
While the Vols have a daunting trip to Tuscaloosa to take on No. 1 Alabama on deck, for now, they’ll soak in the joy of winning their first SEC game of the season on the backs of two veteran players who were afterthoughts.
“Just a great win for our program,” Pruitt said. “And it’s good for these guys who are working their tails off to have some fun with it.”