Underdog, unproven and unranked, Tennessee entered Saturday’s neutral site showdown with No. 17 West Virginia in Charlotte as one of college football’s biggest unknowns.
After the dust settled at Bank of America Stadium, the scoreboard read 40-14 in favor of the heavily favored Mountaineers. Still, some questions were answered-and some still remain-but it’s clear that Tennessee’s identity as a football program, just a year removed from it’s worst season in history, is already different under Jeremy Pruitt.
First Quarter: West Virginia 10, Tennessee 0
The first question answered was the one that was asked perhaps the most in the offseason-who would start under center for the Vols? The answer was redshirt sophomore Jarrett Gurantano and his welcome back was a little less than welcoming on the game’s opening drive as he was driven to the turf after dropping back to pass on the first play. If there were ever such a thing as a bad omen for things to come, that was it.
The West Virginia offense-lead by the Heisman-contending Will Grier-looked as advertised on their first drive. The Mountaineers were able to cover nearly 40 yards in less than three minutes. However, Tennessee’s new-look defense was able to hold them to a field goal, which was good from 26-yards out to give the Mountaineers an early 3-0 lead at the 11-minute mark of the first quarter.
The Vols’ next drive didn’t fare as well, either. While Gurantano was able to make a pair of first down throws to Josh Palmer and Jauan Jennings, the run game was again non-existent and lead to another punt. On the ensuing drive, Grier struck quickly, leading West Virginia on a 5 play, 85-yard drive that would end in a 59-yard touchdown strike to go up 10-0.
A three-and-out by the Vols put Grier back on the field, but the Tennessee defense was able to get pressure on Grier on third down, forcing the West Virginia offense to punt for the first time in the game. As time expired, the Vols finally got a whiff of momentum, which came in the form of freshman Alonte Taylor who partially blocked the punt-setting up Guarantano and company with their best field position of the day at their own 44-yard line.
Second Quarter: West Virginia 13, Tennessee 7
On the first drive of the second quarter, Taylor’s blocked punt seemed to be the shot in the arm that the Tennessee offense needed. Both facets of the game were working, as running backs Tim Jordan and Madre London finally found some daylight which set up by some down field shots from Guarantano. The 17-play, 78-yard drive went down to the goal line and all four downs, forcing Pruitt to make his first big on-field coaching decision. It paid off with a Guarantano touchdown pass to tight end Dominik Wood-Anderson to pull Tennessee within three, 10-7.
After trading a pair of 3-and-out drives, Grier lead West Virginia on quick drive to close out the half, and it looked like the Mountaineers were poised to put up a touchdown and head to the locker room with a huge momentum shift. But, Shy Tuttle had other plans, sacking Grier on 2nd down. A play later, the defensive line forced Grier to scramble out of bounds on third and long. What looked like six more going into the half turned into another field goal for West Virginia.
HALFTIME: No. 17 West Virginia 13, Tennessee 7
Passing: Guarantano, 10-13, 91 YDs, 1 TD
Rushing: Jordan, 12 ATT, 53 YDs
Receiving: Callaway, 4 REC, 32 YD
TOTAL: 135 YDs
Passing: Grier, 9-15, 154 YDs, 1 TD
Rushing: Pettaway, 4 ATT, 23 YDs
Receiving: Sills, 3 REC, 53 YDs
TOTAL: 195 YDs
Third Quarter: West Virginia 33, Tennessee 14
After a seemingly never-ending rain delay which lasted for over thirty minutes, the Tennessee defense forced West Virginia into a third-and-long on the opening drive of the second half. Grier extended the drive with a 32-yard first down strike to Marcus Simms. A play later, Grier hit David Sills for a 33-yard touchdown to make it a 20-7 advantage for the Mountaineers.
Tennessee’s first drive of the second half didn’t have the same result, looking more like they did on the opening drive of the game as West Virginia’s defense forced the Vols to another quick three-and-out. After getting the ball back, Grier lead the Mountaineers to yet another touchdown drive in 60 yards and 7 plays to extend their lead to 27-7 with 8:09 left in the quarter.
Offensively, Tennessee finally found their answer in the form of a two minute, 5-play, 75-yard drive which resulted in a 4-yard rush from Jordan to pull within two scores, 27-14 with 6:09 on the clock.
As quickly as the tandem of Guarantano and Jordan answered on the previous drive, Grier would march 78-yards down field to hook up with a wide open Kennedy McCoy for 14-yard touchdown toss to lead 33-14.
Fourth Quarter: West Virginia 40, Tennessee 14
The fourth quarter of the game started with much of the same, Tennessee forcing West Virginia to 3rd and 11 only to see Grier keep another drive alive with first down pass. A few plays later, the Vols were able to finally have a break go their way forcing a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Paul Bane at their own 37-yard line.
The game’s first turnover provided another opportunity for the Tennessee offense to try and get back into the game and they looked like they were taking advantage of that opportunity, responding with a 61-yard drive in six plays, but a goal line stand from West Virginia virtually eliminated any hopes Tennessee had of a come-from-behind win.
Following the goal-line stand, Grier threw his fifth touchdown pass of the day with a 10-yard connection to Sills to cap off an 8-play, 98-yard drive that ate two minutes off of the clock.
FINAL: West Virginia 40, Tennessee 14
Passing: Gurantano, 19-25 172 YDs, 1 TD
Rushing: Jordan, 20 ATT, 118 YDs, 1 TD
Receiving: Callaway, 7 REC, 85 YDs
Passing: Grier, 25-34, 429 YDs, 5 TDs
Rushing: Pettaway, 9 ATT, 56 YDs
Receiving: Sills, 12 REC, 140 YDs, 2 TDs