For the first time all year, a Tennessee loss did not result in a 20-plus point margin. The Volunteers fell to the South Carolina Gamecocks 27-24 in a game where they once led 21-9. Yet all fans can feel is a disappointment.
The game did not play out like anyone anticipated it to. Tennessee’s offense showed signs of life, while their defense never stepped off the bus. That is an odd reversal of this season’s trends, and it begs the question about how it transpired.
We look at both developments in this week’s version of The Flip Side.
Explosive Plays Allowed
Two days ago, I wrote an article talking about Jeremy Pruitt’s defense and why the final five games would be crucial for improvement. If the defense was to turn around after a rough start, it would begin with a middling South Carolina offense with clear weaknesses.
Early returns are...not great.
South Carolina’s yardage totals are not that different from Tennessee’s (376 vs. 351). But for whatever reason, the Gamecocks were able to gash the defense like they were Alabama. Three different touchdown drives took less than two minutes, thanks to five plays that went more than 15 yards. They averaged over five yards per carry and 6.7 yards per play overall.
That is disappointing for Tennessee’s defense. It is also not unexpected if you watched the game: Tennessee’s safeties had a lot of trouble staying in front of receivers, and the defensive line got virtually zero push all game.
This was not the type of offense that should be able to do that to a Pruitt-coached team. It is true that the talent is not at an acceptable level, nor is there a lot of experience to fall back on.
Yet it is not too much to ask them to hold out for longer than two minutes in a game where they held a multi-score lead at one point.
With a little under 40 seconds until halftime, Tennessee’s offense had the ball at their own 37-yard line. They had one timeout remaining and held a slim 14-9 lead. They needed just 30 yards to get into Brent Cimaglia’s field goal range. Every single aspect of the situation screamed “Maximize your offensive opportunities”.
Tennessee decided to kneel it and head to the locker room.
That is called “playing scared”.
Your offense was moving the ball very well. Your quarterback was in a rhythm, your offensive line was playing above expectations, and it looked like you had a semblance of a run game. Choosing to ignore all of that and go for the hyper-conservative option is a terrible coaching mistake and shows an almost insulting lack of confidence in your team.
Here’s the kicker: Even if Tennessee won the game, it was still the wrong decision. It is like evaluating playcalling. You cannot look at the just the outcome, you have to judge the situation and the actual call itself. Tennessee chose not to take advantage of a prime opportunity. They proceeded to lose the game by three points.
These things are not just coincidences.
Offensive Game Plan
What do you do when your offensive line is missing two starters, including your best lineman at left tackle? Exactly what Tyson Helton did tonight.
There were some changes you could make here and there—more deep shots should have been attempted—but Helton did everything he could to evade the problem. He chose fast-developing passes that allowed Jarrett Guarantano to get it out quickly, horizontal runs that took the focus towards the flats, and smart routes over the middle. Tennessee going 11-for-16 on third down was an especially encouraging sign.
A lot of players benefitted. Guarantano had a good game, all three of Tennessee’s running backs averaged at least 4.5 yards per rush, and Marquez Callaway caught nine passes for 86 yards.
In fact, the arrival of a running game should not go unnoticed. 144 rushing yards on 4.2 yards per carry is not exactly “good”, but it is far and away Tennessee’s best result from their entire Power-5 schedule. Considering the circumstances of the offensive line going into this one, that is an impressive mark.
Assigning blame to the offense for the loss is strange. The offense worked exactly like it is supposed to. They did not have a dominant game but they did more than enough to win it.
The problem is that when you have a slow, grinding style of offense, your defense needs to hold out long enough to chew through the game clock. Giving up three touchdowns drives under two minutes is the literal opposite and the exact formula for wasting your offense.