Tennessee was tasked with proving they had, in fact, taken several steps forward from their first game of the season on Saturday night. Just a little over two months ago, the Vols fell to a non-Power Five opponent in Neyland Stadium, losing 38-30 to Georgia State.
On Saturday, the Vols played a 6-1 UAB team determined to try and do the same thing the Panthers did in Week 1.
That didn’t happen, though.
The Vols (4-5, 2-3 SEC) handled the Blazers (6-2, 3-1 CUSA) with ease on Saturday night for Homecoming, defeating UAB 30-7 in front of 85,000-plus fans in Neyland Stadium. Tennessee’s offense sputtered a few times early on, settling for field goals and climbing out to a 9-0 lead.
Then, Tennessee finally found pay dirt in the end zone, and they wouldn’t look back.
An 11-yard rushing touchdown from Ty Chandler in the second quarter marked the first touchdown of the night for the Vols, and their next two scores after that would also be touchdowns. UT’s defense did their job by forcing four turnovers and shutting out the Blazers for 57 minutes.
The Vols’ offense barely totaled 300 yards, but Tennessee’s defense was dynamic. The offense did enough to get points on the board, stay healthy, and get the win.
Tennessee was put on “upset alert” before Saturday’s game. But unlike against Georgia State or even against BYU, the Vols never looked out of control against UAB.
Here are our five biggest takeaways from Tennessee’s 30-7 win.
A Near-Record Performance
Bryce Thompson started the season on the bench as he served a suspension for an off-field incident during fall camp. It took the sophomore a few weeks to knock off the rust, but he’s been playing better as of late.
On Saturday against UAB, Thompson had one of the best single-game performances of any UT defensive back ever.
The sophomore from South Carolina picked off three passes in the first half of Saturday’s game, tying the school record for most interceptions by one player in a single game. Several other Vols have done that same feat, most notably Deon Grant and Tim Priest, and now Thompson joins those Vols in the record books.
Last season, Thompson intercepted three passes in 12 games as a freshman. This year, Thompson had yet to pick off a pass prior to Saturday’s game. But that all changed against UAB, and it changed in a big way.
Thompson also totaled three tackles and a quarterback hurry against the Blazers.
Defense Does it Again
For the second-straight game, Tennessee’s defense was lights out.
The Vols had a decent first half against South Carolina last week, but they came alive in the second half and shut out the Gamecocks en route to a 41-21 Tennessee victory. On Saturday, Tennessee didn’t give up a single point until the final three minutes of the game, nearly extending their shut out streak to six-straight quarters.
Tennessee’s defense was stifling and forced four turnovers. Along with Thompson’s three interceptions, the Vols also forced and recovered a fumble. UT picked up three sacks and three tackles for loss, held UAB to a paltry 2.5 yards per carry, and stopped the Blazers on third down time and time again, holding them to just 3-of-10 on third down conversions until their final possession on offense.
Not only that, but UAB’s offense only averaged 4.3 yards per play overall and totaled just 237 yards of total offense, only 63 of which came on the ground.
UAB didn’t have the most explosive offense coming into the game, but they had a strong receiving corps and a decent quarterback. The Vols didn’t allow the Blazers to do much through the air, though, holding UAB to 14-of-30 passing as a team and picking off three passes.
Tennessee’s quarterback play against UAB wasn’t the worst the Vols have seen this season, but it certainly wasn’t the best, either.
JT Shrout got the start at QB, but he was benched after playing just one series. Jarrett Guarantano took over for the rest of the first half, and he was unimpressive. The redshirt junior led Tennessee to a couple more field goals and handed the ball off to Ty Chandler for an 11-yard touchdown run, but he ended the half with a horrible interception in the back of the end zone.
Granted, Guarantano was playing with a cast on his left hand after having surgery on his wrist last weekend, and it seemed to affect his play. But the fourth-year junior still made poor decisions and bad reads consistently. He would go on to toss a good 13-yard touchdown to Eric Gray in the third quarter, however.
Shrout started the second half after Guarantano’s interception before halftime, but the redshirt freshman only attempted six passes the entire game, completing three of them for 34 total yards.
Brian Maurer was supposedly cleared to play, but it seemed as though the coaching staff was trying to keep him safe and healthy heading into UT’s final three SEC games of the season. He never played in the game.
Jennings the Swiss Army Man
Jauan Jennings proved last week against South Carolina that he can do anything asked of him. He went out against UAB and showed that again.
The redshirt senior finished the game as Tennessee’s leading receiver with five catches for 70 yards, including a 23-yard reception that showed off his toughness and physicality, as he evaded defenders and broke a couple tackles to keep churning up field. On an 18-yard catch, Jennings fumbled the ball momentarily, fielded it on a bounce, and regained possession before being tackled.
But Jennings didn’t just impress as a receiver.
Jennings didn’t play as much wildcat quarterback against UAB as he did against South Carolina, but he made his snaps count on Saturday. The redshirt senior scored his first-career rushing touchdown during the game, scoring from two yards out to give the Vols a 23-0 lead late in the second quarter.
In his career, Jennings now has 20 total touchdowns. He’s caught 17 touchdown passes, has throw two touchdowns, and now has a rushing score on his record.
Time for the Stretch Run
The Vols are now two wins away from bowl eligibility, and they have three more games to get there.
Saturday’s win over UAB marks the end of Tennessee’s non-conference slate of games, meaning UT’s three remaining games are all against SEC foes. The Vols will go on the road to take on Kentucky next weekend, get a week off for a bye week, play Missouri on the road, then host Vanderbilt for the final game of the regular season.
A month ago, most fans didn’t think a bowl game was even possible for the Vols. Now, the odds might actually be in Tennessee’s favor of making it to the postseason as long as they get decent quarterback play and stay healthy.