Sorry for getting your hopes up. Let’s try this again.
Last week sucked, so instead of watching Tennessee get destroyed, you (should) get to watch Tennessee destroy an inferior opponent this week. ETSU, after 12 years without it, resumed playing football in 2015 and has largely been what you’d expect from an expansion program. Carl Torbush went 11-22 in three seasons, including a 2-14 record against any team at .500 or better. Their best win since the reboot is over #18 Samford in 2016, where they won on a field goal at the buzzer. Now, they have Randy Sanders, who got briefly suspended for slapping a player’s helmet (?) and is 1-0.
Look, I can’t muster up much for this one. This game matters far more to East Tennessee State than it ever will to the University of Tennessee. I’m glad they’re playing, of course, but barring ETSU’s best performance since the mid-1990s, this won’t be close. It has nothing to do with how well ETSU can sketch up a game plan or how bad Ryan Johnson is at right guard; Tennessee is simply much bigger, much faster, and much more talented. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if this looks pretty similar to 2016 Tennessee Tech or even last year’s Indiana State game.
Also, I’m mad because ETSU/their conference has signed a season-long contract with the new ESPN+ service, and this thing sucks. I tried for 30 minutes Tuesday night to get the game to pull up on my laptop using three different browsers. Each attempt resulted in this unchanging screen:
So I can’t bring you a breakdown of ETSU’s game film from Saturday versus Mars Hill, a Division II team that has lost fewer than four games in a season once since 1986. I can, however, break down the fact that ETSU took 29 minutes to score on Mars Hill and didn’t lead for the first time until 44 minutes in. I can also share that their field goal kicker missed both of his attempts from 44 and 37 yards. I can also also share that their first six drives ended in missed field goals, two fumbles, and two punts.
Now, ETSU did gain eight yards per play and 511 yards total. They outgained Mars Hill 238-14 on the ground. Those are things they’re supposed to do against outmatched teams, just like Tennessee is supposed to do to them. If Tennessee gives up 249 passing yards on eight yards per attempt like ETSU did, then you can worry.
New quarterback! From Temple!
Yes, you’re reading that right: Temple’s 2017 starting quarterback (for the first seven games) transferred to ETSU. Now, this is the part where I inform you Logan Marchi was beaten out by “Frank Nutile”, both apparently a real person and apparently a much better quarterback. (Nutile bettered Marchi’s completion percentage by 6% and threw for just 58 fewer yards in 46 fewer attempts.) Before that, Marchi was at Connecticut, and that’s all there is to say about that. Because of our ESPN+ futility, the highlights above are from Marchi’s best (by Adjusted QBR) Temple performance, a three touchdown outing versus UMass.
Marchi won’t run much – his best runs in college have all been off of scrambles when his receivers weren’t open – but, as usual, it’s worth keeping an eye on him and seeing what former five-star gets to Marchi quickest. It won’t be Jonathan Kongbo, I can assure you of that. Somewhat notable is his, and ETSU’s, third down struggles versus Mars Hill: Marchi started out just 1 of 5 on third downs before hitting 2 of 3 to end the game.
Quay Holmes is solid
He’s a redshirt freshman that ran for 118 yards on 17 carries and a touchdown in game one. Nothing longer than 17 yards, though. No highlights, sorry.
Receivers in transition
— Kane O'Neill (@WJHL_Kane) September 2, 2018
Not that the passing game was exactly an explosive source of points for East Tennessee last season (no receiver with more than 35 receptions or 417 yards), but ETSU is replacing three of their top four receivers from 2017. Quan Harrison appeared to get the most love against Mars Hill – 5 receptions on 8 targets, 112 yards, and a touchdown catch at 0:26 above – but nine different receivers or running backs got action in the passing game.
Gave up three sacks to Mars Hill, but also rushed for a lot of yards. Returning three of five starters from 2017, I think. Of course ETSU couldn’t manage to get a depth chart uploaded anywhere other than the 35-page game notes for Mars Hill.
Returning seven-ish starters of varying quality
ETSU’s defense wasn’t bad for the FCS level at all last season – 43rd overall, including a #18 ranking in passing yards allowed…which was entirely offset by the 106th-best offense at the FCS level. Sorry, guys. Anyway, they were fine against Mars Hill in game one. They allowed 14 total yards on 34 carries, though Mars Hill lost 15 yards on a punt attempt where the punter dropped the snap. Even with that, that’s a good effort. I don’t exactly expect a beast of a performance here, but at least in the front four, they could give Tennessee’s lesser linemen tests of minor note. Please, yes, I will take the over 1.5 on Drew Richmond sacks allowed.
In the secondary, it appears they won’t end up being as solid as last year’s unit. That’s fine, as they lost two defensive back starters and are breaking in a new starter at the other safety position. Jarrett Guarantano looked pretty darn good when he didn’t have three WVU defenders in his face immediately post-snap. I have a feeling he’ll look pretty great in this game.
ETSU’s kicker missed two field goals. Their punter averaged 36.1 per kick in 2017 and is 160 pounds. ETSU does not have a kick or punt return touchdown since starting the program back up, but they’ve given up four special teams touchdowns. Might be something to watch. I’m ashamed to admit I thought about Brent Cimaglia taunting an ETSU defender after an extra point.
It’s hard to say much of anything interesting about a game where Vegas doesn’t even have a point spread on the board. (A consensus of the computer ratings we used last week suggests Tennessee -33.) There simply isn’t much brought to the table here. Tennessee is a giant favorite, while East Tennessee hasn’t shown a sign in the last three years that they can really keep this lower than about a 28 point game. It’s more likely that Tennessee beats expectations in week two than falls below them again, unless Jeremy Pruitt just sucks. (We’ll see.)
This game is much more about seeking out little positives than it is any big statements. How does Guarantano look when he’s got a lot of time to throw? Can the offensive line start and finish a game strong? What about the OL rotation – does Tennessee utilize Jerome Carvin and K’Rojhn Calbert more? (No Warren County product has played for Tennessee since 1980. I am from Warren County. Our other best player in 20 years went to Duke.) Can Tennessee, PLEASE GOD, get a pass rush against ETSU? Will Jonathan Kongbo hang up the controller and blow by an offensive tackle for the first time in three years? Can Tennessee settle on a third wide receiver? Josh Palmer sure got a lot of run against WVU, and for some reason, Jauan Jennings only got 22 snaps.
For a game prediction, it seems pretty easy. Until Tennessee is able to efficiently score on offense and avoid negative plays, I don’t feel comfortable touching even 45 points for them. On the other side, enough of Tennessee’s defensive issues in game one were fundamental fixes that ETSU won’t be able to exploit nearly as well. Get some dudes some action and feel better about things. Tennessee 38, ETSU 3.