Bitter Pills to Swallow, Hard Lessons to Learn.
After coming up short 27-24 in Columbia, the Vols return to Knoxville looking to rebound next week against Charlotte and attempt to take a step toward getting themselves bowl eligible. That said, these Vols are going to look at the tape and realize that they let an SEC East road win get away from them against the Gamecocks. Tennessee was up by as much as 21-9 before allowing a furious comeback to South Carolina. There is plenty of blame to go around in this one, but there are a few shortcomings that should be looked at in greater detail. The first is by far the most glaring.
Tennessee’s defense has been solid for most of this season. They have had struggles against some elite teams in the nation and seen a few games get out of hand late, but for the most part, this unit has played solid football, could be counted on, and has shown improvement week to week as the season has gone on. Playing a South Carolina offense that has had a fair amount of struggles all season, despite have explosive play ability with Debo Samuel and Jake Bentley, the Vol defense was expected to be able to contain and limit what the Gamecocks could do with the ball. After an early interception by Shy Tuttle on a batted ball and playing tight coverage downfield against Carolina receivers, it looked early like the Volunteer defense was going to be up to the challenge. Then the Gamecocks got the ball back before the end of the first half.
That possession represented the start of a string of offensive dominance by Carolina until the game’s conclusion. Beginning with the final possession of the first half, the Gamecocks had five possessions before the final whistle. On those possessions, they scored 24 points and ran the clock out to end the game, and had the game gone on, they were already well within field goal range on that drive. The Tennessee defense got torched in South Carolina’s final five possessions, and there is no way to sugar coat it. Carolina imposed their will when they chose to run the football, averaging nearly eight yards per carry in the second half of the game. The Gamecocks were just as efficient in the air during this stretch, completing a pair of very long throws, as well as having Samuel come up with a brilliant one-handed catch in the endzone just before the half. To make that play sting even more for the defense, it appeared Bentley was corralled for a potential sack when the man responsible for Samuel came up to pressure Bentley, allowing him to throw it up and give his star receiver an opportunity to make a play. Once the second half started, the Vols never even got close to slowing the Gamecocks. South Carolina went up and down the field, seemingly at will, hitting big play after big play. Tennessee was never able to adjust or correct, and the Vols looked as bad in the second half on defense as they have all season. Poor tackling, missed assignments, and losing one on one matchups contributed to what can only be described as a defensive meltdown. However, the failures to adjust to Carolina were a portion of a wider issue present in this matchup.
Jeremy Pruitt is a first-year head coach with a well-documented and successful background as a defensive coordinator. This has all been discussed at length, however last night in Columbia those roles both came into play. First and foremost, Jeremy Pruitt calls his own defensive plays at Tennessee, meaning that he was not able to adjust his scheme to what Carolina was doing in the second half. Players must execute, but Pruitt lost the chess match in play calling to Bryan McClendon, South Carolina’s first year Offensive Coordinator, last night. Carolina came out of a bye week and showed Tennessee some new wrinkles, including a lot of 12 personnel, one running back and two tight ends, where the Gamecocks had tried to spread teams out for most of the season. He also came at Pruitt’s defense with a commitment to the running game that was new for the Carolina offense this season, a commitment that was successful and opened some of the deep throws that Carolina went for late. All in all, the last five offensive possessions for South Carolina went about as badly for everyone associated with the Volunteer defense as it possibly could have, including the coaches. As disappointed as Pruitt had to be as a defensive coordinator, Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt left Columbia with some bitter lessons to swallow.
One of the only bright spots, it appeared, for the Vol defense in the second half of the game, was when Tennessee appeared to recover a Carolina fumble on the goal line. Replay showed that the ball was clearly out, and that Daniel Bituli emerged from the pile with the ball. The play was not whistled dead until Bituli was out and running with the ball. Broadcast replay clearly showed that the ball was out before the runner was down and a recovery by the Tennessee linebacker. The play was called down by contact on the field and the replay booth chose not to review the play. This was an instance where there was a breakdown in the Tennessee staff. Someone on staff is responsible for advising Pruitt when he would want to make a challenge. Shy Tuttle and Darrin Kirkland Jr. have stated in interviews that they knew the ball was out and a fumble. This was an instance that Jeremy Pruitt desperately needed to throw the challenge flag. The way Carolina was playing, they still could have won the game, but taking eight points off the board on a clear fumble could have led to a very different outcome. This situation, and decision to go on fourth down rather than attempt a long field goal or run on the preceding third down to make a field goal more manageable, meant a promising Tennessee possession came up totally empty. Perhaps the most bitter pill for Pruitt, though, will be the handling of the Volunteers’ final possession before the half.
Tennessee got the ball after Samuel’s incredible one-handed touchdown catch, and the Vol offense was having success moving the ball against the Gamecocks. Tennessee looked to initially be running to kill the clock, and then Ty Chandler popped a long run for a first down. The Vols had 50 seconds left in the half with a timeout in their pocket. In college football, with receivers like Tennessee possesses, that is plenty of time to at least attempt to get into field goal range. Rather than push for points, Pruitt elected to take a knee and let the clock run out, leaving the Vols with a timeout in the pocket and a chance at points left on the field. Tennessee and Pruitt seemed to be playing to avoid the big mistake, to not lose, rather than pushing for points at every opportunity in a game on the road that points are historically at a premium for. It comes back as an opportunity that the Vols decided at the half that they didn’t need, and one that they wished they had taken in the fourth quarter. Missed opportunities weren’t limited to the coaching staff, however, as both failed chances and self-inflicted mistakes contributed to the Tennessee loss.
That Tennessee has serious issues on the offensive line is well documented. That those issues became even worse when the best player on the roster, left tackle Trey Smith, was sidelined indefinitely due to a recurrence of blood clots in his lungs goes without saying. Even with all that in mind, the Volunteer offensive line turned in another deficient performance against the Gamecocks. Tyson Helton called a game that saw Jarrett Guarantano throwing a multitude of screen passes, slants, and crossing routes that were designed to get the ball out of his hands quickly. Even then, Guarantano was regularly hit and hit hard on three step drops, sometimes not even having his back foot set before getting the ball out. The Vol offensive line then added a further degree of difficulty to the situation they kept their quarterback and offensive coordinator in by false starting five times, all on third or fourth down, and usually making a manageable conversion into a much longer attempt. Even then, Guarantano and the receivers were excellent at picking up conversions against one of the best third down percentage defenses in America. The blocking for the run game by the line was not as bad as the pass protection, but it was not at an acceptable level.
Despite the beating he took and needing to rush dink and dunk passes behind a porous line, Guarantano threw for over 200 yards, a pair of touchdowns, and no interceptions. He also took a few shots down the field and delivered them on target to Josh Palmer. Unfortunately for the Vols, the drops that had plagued Palmer resurfaced in this contest and he couldn’t reel in any of the long passes that he had a shot at. Those drops, along with a couple uncharacteristic drops in key places by Marquez Callaway, meant that the Vols literally let yards and opportunities slip through their fingers. Beyond the drops, two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on the receivers, one on Callaway and one on Jauan Jennings after a touchdown, also hurt the Vols. The Jennings penalty gave South Carolina excellent field position, that the Gamecocks turned into a score, and the penalty on Callaway killed a Tennessee drive forcing the Vols to play for a field goal on what looked to have a shot at being a touchdown drive.
The Volunteers leave Columbia knowing that they left opportunities on the turf of Williams-Brice Stadium, and knowing that they let a game they should have won slip through their fingers. This tape is going to be pleasant for neither the Volunteer players nor their coaches. Expect a very tough practice leading up to the game against Charlotte on Saturday. Tennessee needs to win three of their final four games to get themselves bowl eligible, and they squandered an excellent opportunity at capturing a conference win on Saturday night. There were bitter lessons to be learned in the aftermath of the trip to Columbia, but if the Vols can learn from them, tighten up, and correct them, they still have a chance to use them to get into the post season. Whether looking back on this Carolina trip becomes bittersweet or stays plain bitter for the Vols will depend on whether they can process and grow. The Miners are this week for Tennessee, but preparation will be toward trying to get another conference win and pushing to a bowl with a contest against Kentucky looming. Hopefully, Tennessee learns these hard lessons well, and is able to teach them to a few opponents remaining on the schedule.