Suffice to say, Tennessee did not expect Saturday’s game against West Virginia to unfold the way it did. Between a stuttering offense and seemingly helpless defense, many were left wondering if they had completely misjudged this team’s expectations. West Virginia was the favorite but plenty thought that Tennessee could turn it into a one score contest. Were they truly this weak?
Trying to find the positives in a 40-14 loss seems like a fruitless exercise. Continue to keep in mind that this is a first-year head coach with an entirely new staff. It’s a bit unfair to grade them on a normal scale.
So what parts of the game are truly concerning developments, and which are positive progressions?
I’m not sure there’s even a silver lining here. Whatever you thought would happen on the offensive and defensive lines, Saturday’s results were shocking.
It became obvious after the first couple of Tennessee drives that the line was unprepared for what hit them. All those numbers about what West Virginia’s defense gave up last season were made totally irrelevant. The Mountaineers were fast, physical, and blew up the inside faster than Tennessee could plan around them.
Tennessee’s whole offensive plan relied on the running game to soak up the clock and sustain drives. That is impossible when you can’t get any sort of push. It’s a different zone scheme system with different coaches, but there’s almost no excuse for what transpired in Charlotte. Keep in mind that the offensive line never really improved throughout the game—the coaching staff made adjustments to avoid the weakness.
It was only slightly better on defense. For much of the second quarter, Tennessee’s defensive line succeeded in putting pressure on Grier. It didn’t result in many sacks, but it did throw off the Mountaineer offense enough to give Tennessee momentum.
Besides that quarter however, Grier was able to get whatever he wanted at any time he wanted. The inability to get pressure with a 4 man rush means that you have to send blitzes, which is a perilous task when you need all the help you can get in the secondary. It’s also disappointing when players like Kyle Phillips and Shy Tuttle have so much talent that isn’t shining through.
If these lines don’t seriously improve over the next few games, this team will not make a bowl.
Tennessee is hoping that all of its cornerback commits/targets were watching Saturday’s contest. The Volunteers had very little depth to work with, which is not exactly a surprising development. If three true freshman were receiving legitimate reps during the game (Alontae Taylor, Bryce Thompson, Trevon Flowers), it’s probably a sign that Pruitt felt his veteran starters did not instill confidence.
The upside here is exactly that: giving talented players in-game experience against good teams typically helps along their development. But there’s going to be glitches while that development occurs. Especially when the season opener is against a Heisman contender and proven receiving corps.
Ty Chandler’s Injury
Most were pleasantly surprised with Tim Jordan’s performance at running back. The sophomore ran for 118 yards and one touchdown on 5.8 yards per carry. More importantly, he looked like the exact type of runner that Tyson Helton’s system requires. He was tough and lowered his shoulder to gain extra yards whenever he could. Considering how much the offensive line struggled, it was impressive.
But there’s also a reason that Ty Chandler was planning to receive just as many carries before an injury in the first quarter sidelined him for the rest of the game. Whereas Chandler may not be as prone to power-running, he makes up for it with his versatility and speed to the outside. That is exactly what Tennessee could have used against a Mountaineer defense that took away their primary method of offensive production.
Does Chandler radically alter the outcome? No. But the projected one-two punch at running back may be in jeopardy. Chandler brings an explosive style that neither Jordan nor Madre London can replicate. If his injury is serious, this offense is going to suffer.
Even the biggest of NegaVols has to admit that Jarrett Guarantano looked like a different quarterback today. His passes were accurate, he stood tall in the pocket, and he never forced a throw that was egregiously dangerous. In fact, his statline provides an accurate representation of how he played: 19-for-25 for 172 yards and one touchdown. He won’t put an offense on his back but he will absolutely help them move down the field and not turn it over.
Fans obviously wanted more against a defense that was supposed to be subpar. The truth is that Guarantano’s progression was basically the only thing that prevented this from being a complete shutout. He did well and I suspect that the coaching staff will open up the passing offense as the season goes on.
Speaking of the offense, there were positive signs that the coaching staff understood the issues. They can’t exactly fix the offensive line in the middle of the game, but they can outright avoid the issue with certain play calls. They did exactly that in the second quarter when Guarantano helped lead a 17 play, 78 yard scoring drive to make it 10-7. Tennessee began spreading out their players and getting the ball to the outside. It was quick passes which built Guarantano’s confidence and runs to the outside which showed off Tim Jordan’s abilities. There were even some blocking schemes which avoided the frustration of the first quarter.
There was just one touchdown to show for it in the second half, but the yardage results were actually encouraging. Tennessee accumulated 122 total yards in five first-half drives, two of which ended inside the Tennessee 20-yard line. Compare that to the second-half when the first four drives went for 159 total yards. One of those ended at the West Virginia 2-yard line after Pruitt elected to go for it on fourth down.
No awards should be given out for managing 14 points against West Virginia. You can still agree that the offensive adjustments were the sign of a capable coaching staff.
Amidst a struggling defense, the linebacker unit was the clear standout. Again, that’s not a surprising development, but it gives Pruitt a clear foundation for what he wants to do the rest of the year. Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Daniel Bituli looked capable (if not good) for most of the game.
The linebackers weren’t exactly game changers. But after watching the defensive line and secondary struggle the entire day, it became obvious that the linebackers were the one part of the defense that gives hope for the rest of the year. There’s enough talent and experience here to truly make a difference later on in the season. Look for Pruitt to send them on more blitzes when they aren’t facing a pass-heavy team like West Virginia.