Tennessee trailed No. 1 Alabama 28-13 at the start of the fourth quarter. Despite some poor play, quarterback Jarrett Guarantano still had the Vols in position to make Crimson Tide fans sweat when the Vols took over at their own 34 with just seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Guarantano, Tim Jordan, and the Vols’ offense methodically drove down the field to begin the fourth quarter. Guarantano completed a third down slant pass to Marquez Callaway for a first down, found Ty Chandler for another first down pass on third down, tossed a deep pass to Callaway that drew a pass interference call on Alabama, and Tim Jordan picked up chunks of yards on several runs, most notably a nine-yard run from the Alabama 11-yard-line down to the two to set the Vols up with first-and-goal.
From there, Jordan lost one yard, gained a yard, then Quavaris Crouch was stuffed at the one after a one-yard rush.
Rather than getting in the huddle and taking their time to get things set up, Guarantano elected to hurry the offense up to the line. The redshirt junior took the snap from center, tried to leap over the line of scrimmage to get into the end zone, and had the ball fly out of his hands in the process.
Waiting for the ball in the end zone was Alabama’s Trevon Diggs. With almost every other player piled up at the point of attack, Diggs had a clear field in front of him, and he scooped up the fumble and sprinted 100-plus yards the opposite direction for a touchdown, delivering the final nail in the coffin and giving Alabama a 35-13 lead.
That’s just crazy. Jarrett Guarantano fumbles the ball & Alabama returns it for a TD. pic.twitter.com/5SxSQdWaFD
— Trey Wallace (@TreyWallace_) October 20, 2019
After the game, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt was asked about that play call and whether or not Guarantano made his own decision on what to run. According to Pruitt, there was miscommunication on the play, and the second-year coach took full responsibility for the breakdown in communication. But Pruitt did fault the redshirt junior for attempting to leap over the defense rather than trying to push the pile.
“We’re close down there on the goal line. So you’ve got an opportunity to run the sneak or give the ball there to (Quavaris Crouch) again,” Pruitt said to reporters after the game. “There was some miscommunication out there, and that’s our fault. It’s the coaches’ fault, starting with me.
“It’s no reason to hurry up. The ball is this far from the in line. We ran two quarterback sneaks earlier in the game by pushing the pile, and our guys, they dented the front a little bit right there. So, talking about it there on the sideline, we could either go back with it (to Crouch) or run the sneak, and we elected to run a sneak. Shouldn’t have jumped over the top. Should’ve pushed it there in the middle.”
There’s no guarantee Tennessee scores the touchdown on that play, but even if they don’t, UT’s defense would have the Tide’s offense backed all the way up to their own one-yard line. A touchdown puts the pressure on Alabama’s offense to try and salt away the game, and a failed scoring opportunity would’ve still put Alabama in a pressure cooker against their own goal-line.
Instead, the most disastrous play possible happened.
Junior offensive lineman Trey Smith was asked about the play after the game as well, and he backed up Pruitt’s statement about a miscommunication. But Smith claims he doesn’t know what happened on the play because he got tangled up with an Alabama defender.
“Obviously, it was a miscommunication on our part,” Smith elaborated. “When we ran the play, I didn’t really know what happened because I was in the back of the end zone sort of tangled up. It was just a simple miscommunication.”
Later, Smith was asked if Guarantano changed the play call or if there was confusion from the offensive players about what was being run. The standout junior lineman declined to comment, saying “I’m not sure” if a hand-off was called and adding that he didn’t want to get into the nuances of the play-calling.
“I was pulling away the play. I don’t really know what happened,” Smith said. “It was just a simple miscommunication.”
If Tennessee was able to punch the ball in on that play, the Vols would’ve been down by just one score to No. 1 Alabama with just over seven minutes remaining in the game. With Tua Tagovailoa out of the game for the Tide, the Vols would’ve stood a chance to completely shock the world if their defense could’ve gotten a stop on the ensuing Alabama possession.
As it was, though, the game took a potential 14-point swing and resulted in Alabama getting their 13th-straight victory over Tennessee.
After that play, Pruitt pulled Guarantano for the remainder of the game and put in redshirt freshman JT Shrout at quarterback. At that point, though, it looked like Tennessee’s team had lost their fight, as the Vols had a quick three-and-out on offense and allowed Alabama to chew the clock on an eight-play, 31-yard drive to drain the game clock to just 29 seconds remaining. Tennessee would kneel the ball after stopping the Tide on fourth down at the UT seven-yard line.
Did that fumble deflate the Vols? Not according to Pruitt.
“Well, it wasn’t deflating. It pissed me off. I don’t know about you, but it pissed me off,” Pruitt said. “We just put a great drive together and really ran the ball at will down through there. I would’ve liked to see us get the ball in there and seen what we could’ve done.
“There are lots of things that didn’t go our way in the game. Some of it we controlled, some of it we didn’t. So we’ll watch the tape, learn from it, and go from there.”
There are many “what if” moments from Saturday’s game against Alabama, but the most memorable will be the fumble at the goal line on fourth down.
But if Pruitt is to be believed, then he and the rest of Tennessee’s team will take the miscues from this game, learn from them, and come out fired up for the rest of the season.