What a wild night it turned out to be in Jacksonville. Tennessee came back from down 13 points with under five minutes to play to beat the Indiana Hoosiers. After sleeping on it, here’s what stood out from last night’s game.
Tennessee should have put the game away early
I’ll start with some negativity.
Three redzone trips, six points. That was the defining stat of the first half. Tennessee was bigger, faster and stronger on both sides of the ball and the advantage was clear. But the scoreboard didn’t reflect that. It was eerily similar to the BYU game, which saw Tennessee let a decent team hang around and paid the price for not putting them away when they had the chance.
The first redzone sequence featured four consecutive goal line passes, each of which fell incomplete. Jarrett Guarantano sailed two of them over open receivers’ heads. The Volunteers had the advantage up front, so why not run the football there? Two more drives stalled after that, giving Tennessee a very uncomfortable 6-0 lead. Indiana nearly hauled in a touchdown before the half began to take the lead.
Tennessee has two issues to fix heading into 2020 — consistency at the quarterback position and redzone offense. If you fix one, the other probably takes care of itself.
Pruitt’s trust in Guarantano gets rewarded once again
Is there a more frustrating player in college football than Jarrett Guarantano? Tennessee’s embattled quarterback played poorly for three quarters, finding himself benched once again in the second half. But after Brian Maurer looked a little too reckless with the football, Pruitt turned right back to Guarantano.
In the fourth quarter, he was rewarded. Guarantano and Eric Gray went to work, willing the Vols back to life late in the fourth quarter. The redshirt junior passer suddenly was making all the right decisions and throws, finding Josh Palmer and Jauan Jennings for big chunks of yards.
Once again, Pruitt’s unwavering faith in Guarantano was rewarded. I’ve just got one question — why on earth can’t Jarrett put a full game together? We’ve only seen that happen a couple of times during his career against Auburn and Missouri. For whatever reason, it seemed like he needed a half to warm up this year.
There’s no denying what Guarantano has done for Tennessee this year. There’s also no denying how much he handicapped the offense for the better part of 2019. Hence the frustration.
Pruitt and Guarantano are in fascinating spots now. Do they stick together for 2020? Or does Guarantano go a different direction with his final year of eligibility? It’s maddening to see the lack of development from Guarantano, who would be entering his fifth season in the program next year.
I said it during the game and I’ll say it again here — Tennessee is a consistent quarterback away from being a top 15 to 20 team next season. If I’m Jeremy Pruitt, I’m thrilled with signing Harrison Bailey. But I’m also taking a long look at the transfer portal this offseason to make sure I’ve got plenty of options under center next fall.
Eric Gray is just different
No disrespect to Ty Chandler or Tim Jordan, but they don’t bring what Eric Gray brings. Tennessee’s freshman running back flat out made things happen against the Hoosiers, dazzling once again in the fourth quarter. Gray was the spark plug, coming up with explosive runs and making plays on checkdowns for Guarantano late in the game.
His ability to make something out of nothing is truly special. If he’s able to get a little stronger, Gray might just be one of the best backs in the SEC next season.
Chaney finally utilized both he and Chandler in the passing attack, which gave Tennessee a spark at different points in the game. Hopefully that’s a nice little 2020 preview.
Really since Alvin Kamara, John Kelly and Josh Dobbs, Tennessee has been missing that guy that can just make things happen. Chandler hasn’t been able to stay healthy and Tim Jordan is just a different style of runner. But Gray is unique. He’s a guy that you can build your entire offensive gameplan around. With Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway gone next year, Tennessee is going to need quite a bit from the sophomore version of Gray.
Jeremy Pruitt playing to win the game
Last year we criticized Pruitt for his lack of aggression in certain spots, particularly his end of half management. But on Thursday against Indiana, there was no question who the aggressor was.
Pruitt started aggressive by going for it on the goal line early on. Though he failed, the tone was set. The onside kick attempt was just early enough to catch Indiana sleeping. If Tennessee doesn’t recover that, the Hoosiers are almost assuredly guaranteed a field goal attempt to make it a two score game again. But Pruitt smelled blood, took his shot and didn’t miss.
This will get lost in the story of this game, but it’s important to remember — on the last drive, he was ready to go for it on fourth down at midfield to seal the win. He wasn’t interested in punting with a minute left in the game. Pruitt was going to put the game on the shoulders of his offensive line. But the play was stopped on a snap infraction by center Brandon Kennedy, which backed Tennessee up five yards, forcing the punt.
With better days on deck for Tennessee, it’s going to be interesting to see how Pruitt develops as an in-game coach. It certainly appears that he will be an aggressive one.