Late in the second quarter of Tennessee’s 41-21 win over South Carolina on Saturday, junior Darel Middleton was ejected for targeting when he hit Gamecocks quarterback Ryan Hilinski. On the play, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for arguing the call.
“We gave up a drive right before the half,” Pruitt said following the game. “I didn’t help the guys. I got a penalty, and I can’t do that. Gave them four extra yards there. We probably would’ve held them if I kept my mouth shut.
“But I’m going to take up for my players, I can guarantee you that.”
The mindset of fighting for one another trickled down from Pruitt to the players on his team. Tennessee had every reason to whither in a game that would significantly help its bowl chances. Instead, the Vols stared adversity in the face, fought, and eventually clawed to a win.
Following two concussions in two weeks, true freshman Brian Maurer was ruled out for the South Carolina game. That meant either redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout would be making his first career start or Jarrett Guarantano would start a week after the most embarrassing play of his career.
Instead, Jauan Jennings started at quarterback — at least for a play — and he rushed for 11 yards out of the wildcat.
Then, it was the Shrout show — at least for two possessions. Shrout was 2-of-4 for 17 yards on his first two possessions, even leading a Tennessee scoring drive that resulted in a 46-yard field goal from Brent Cimaglia. Following the field goal, Shrout passed the torch to Guarantano, who would play the next seven possessions until he broke a bone in his left wrist on the second possession of the third quarter.
Why did Pruitt decide to rotate the quarterbacks as such? “Because it was just the way I wanted to do it,” the head ball coach claimed.
The last game out, Guarantano fumbled at the goal line against Alabama, resulting in a 100-yard touchdown return for the Crimson Tide that gave them the decisive 35-13 lead in the fourth quarter. On the play, it appeared Guarantano called his own number and didn’t communicate it to the rest of the offense. The following day, Guarantano stood up in front of his coaches and teammates in a team meeting and apologized for his actions, asking for their forgiveness.
“How he responded to last week,” Pruitt said of Guarantano. “He owned it. Came out here tonight and done a fantastic job. Came off the bench, gave us a spark with his leadership, his trust.”
With a breath of fresh air, Guarantano proceeded to complete 11 of his 19 pass attempts for 229 yards and two touchdowns against South Carolina. The redshirt junior exited the game with the Vols leading 24-21 and 8:10 remaining in the third quarter after taking a shot on his 19-yard touchdown pass to Jennings.
“I could have played a lot better,” Guarantano said after the game. “I think that there were some times where I could have done some things differently, but the team won, and that’s all I’m really worried about. But, I definitely have a lot of room to improve.”
The job wasn’t done, however, after Guarantano’s two touchdown passes to Jennings for 48 and 19 yards, respectively. Shrout entered with a three-point lead, and he promptly helped Tennessee score 10 offensive points to help put the game away.
With 5:07 remaining in the third quarter, Shrout found Callaway deep for a 55-yard touchdown to make it 31-21, advantage Tennessee. Then he helped orchestrate a scoring drive that resulted in a 31-yard field goal from Cimaglia. By this point, Tennessee was leading 34-21, and the nail was ready to be put into the coffin.
A Daniel Bituli blocked punt and recovery in the end zone for a touchdown would hammer home that nail.
For Shrout, Saturday’s game marked his first passing touchdown as a Vol, and it was the most action he had seen in his UT career thus far.
“My teammates have been awesome, encouraging me, being there for me, and I appreciate all of them for that,” Shrout said of his first career passing touchdown. “It was definitely really fun being out there tonight and getting to throw that first touchdown pass. It was a really fun experience.”
“Those guys (the other quarterbacks) are like my little brothers,” Guarantano added. “They’ve been playing some really good ball, and Brian (Maurer) and I were so happy for JT. It was really exciting, and I’m very proud of how they played tonight.”
While the quarterbacks are the center of attention, the offense’s outburst would not have been possible without the play of Jauan Jennings, who caught seven passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns. Each touchdown catch, from 55 yards and 19 yards out, made the highlight reel. With his career performance, Jennings moved into the top 10 in career receiving yards, top six in career receptions, and top eight for career touchdown receptions.
“Jauan has passion for the game, he has passion for his teammates, he has passion for the University of Tennessee,” Pruitt said. “What you see on Saturday is what we see on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. He is consistent in the way he prepares, the way he practices, and it shows up on Saturdays.
“And I think sometimes that can be contagious. And you need guys like that. Jauan has that way about him.”
Even with the offense garnering most of the attention for its outburst, it was the defense that made impressive halftime adjustments that allowed Tennessee to score 24 unanswered points. After scoring 21 points in the first half — including a 75-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Hilinski to Shi Smith on the first play of the game — South Carolina was shut out in the second half.
Pruitt’s defense held the Gamecocks rushing attack to 2.6 yards per carry and 4-of-18 of third down, while sacking Hilinski three times. In the second half, South Carolina totaled just 168 yards, rushed for 21 yards, and was just 0-of-9 on third down.
“Our guys executed at a little higher level in the second half,” Pruitt said. “We kind of got them in some third-and-longs there. And we stopped them in some third-and-shorts. Or maybe a third-and-short or fourth-and-short. Coach Ansley made some really good calls. Our players executed it and got off the field.”
Even Tennessee’s special teams played a huge role in the Vols’ second conference win of the season. With the offense somewhat sputtering early in the game, Marquez Callaway returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown to give Tennessee a 10-7 lead. Then, with 11:41 to go in the game, linebacker Daniel Bituli blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown that put the game away — 41-21.
“At the beginning of the week, we had an interior backer blitzing the A-gap on our punt block,” Bituli responded when asked about his blocked punt. “The first time we ran it, I jogged through it and I realized they didn’t block me. The second time he chipped me and he got yelled at for doing it. The third time, I timed it up, ran through that A-gap and just blocked it, man, and I’m grateful.”
“Gold,” Bituli then described the football as it sat in the end zone. “I had to score that. I’m just glad I was able to get it for my team. It was a great win for my team today, and I’m just so happy to celebrate with these guys.”
Tennessee now turns its attention to UAB, who the Vols will face next Saturday at 7 p.m. Eastern. Following the Blazers stands a trip to Lexington, a trip to Colombia to face Missouri, and a return home to face Vanderbilt in the season finale.
Having battled through adversity against South Carolina and throughout the month of October, a trip to a bowl game, or maybe even winning out appears to be a real possibly. That’s a far cry from the Georgia State loss and 1-4 start to the season.