The Vols didn’t take my advice in Athens. Instead, they fought hard and respectfully competed for most of the game. After watching some of the effort, I can’t blame them. It will probably pay dividends down the road. Some revelations came to light despite a 26-point loss against rival No. 2 Georgia. Also, Tennessee covered the spread, so there’s that. It’s the small victories that count now. Here’s what we learned:
The Defense Is Coming To Form
Last week I mentioned how the 47 points given up against Florida was not indicative of the defense’s actual performance. Well, this week is no different. They weren’t just 11 points better, either. Once again, the defense was on the field way too long. Yet, effort was displayed throughout the game. Don’t let 250 rushing yards fool you. The run defense was stout for most of the game. Most of the damage was done late when the front was worn down. But for the majority of the game, a team filled with dynamic weapons and a loaded backfield failed to make explosive plays. Georgia’s most explosive play was a 31-yard fumble recovery from tight end Isaac Nauta.
It was the ultimate bend-but-don’t break” performance for the Volunteer defense. Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm had some shots available in the passing game, but failed to execute. The Vol defense held steady and their front had an exceptional game. Kyle Phillips and Alexis Johnson were right behind Daniel Bituli in tackles with seven. The star on both sides of the ball for Tennessee was linebacker Darrell Taylor. The former defensive end had three sacks and two forced fumbles. Not capitalizing on these fumbles or creating turnovers was the only issue. It seemed as if the defense was battling luck as well as Georgia’s dynamic offense.
Take away Nauta’s fluky touchdown and the last touchdown that Georgia scored, and we are talking about a two-score loss. Think about it. If Jeremy Banks doesn’t fumble, the worst-case scenario is a Tennessee punt. At that point, the Bulldogs probably run the clock out. With that said, the defense showed much, much improvement.
Jarrett Guarantano Needs An Open Playbook
For consecutive games, the play-calling was too conservative. This didn’t make a huge difference in the outcome. Let’s face it: there is no recipe for beating Georgia with this team right now. Which is actually reason to be more aggressive. There is a need to protect Guarantano, but sacrificing yards and chasing points isn’t fortuitous for a team trying to create a miracle. It is clear that the quarterback has reliable targets. There seems to be a new name emerge every week for Guarantano. This game it was Josh Palmer. The two connected on a beautiful 37-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. Guarantano did not go through his progressions for most of the game, even on the pass to Palmer. That touchdown was the perfect play call for the coverage and the quarterback threw what was probably the best ball of his career.
On the next possession, he hit Ty Chandler on swing pass that went 35 yards for a score. It seemed as if offensive coordinator Tyson Helton knew it was time to expand the playbook. But why wait? It’s not like he is digging deep into his stash of plays. The first half gameplan was as vanilla as store-brand yogurt. It didn’t help that Marquez Callaway left the game due to injury, but that didn’t happen until the second half. Also, Jauan Jennings needs more than two targets per game. The guy is automatic on slant routes. It is a crowded unit, but Jennings can absorb the blows and fight for yardage. Helton needs to find a way to get the fan-favorite more involved in the intermediate pass game.
Most importantly, the offensive line looked better. That’s not saying much, but the performance against a stout defense was palatable compared to previous weeks. Guarantano looks comfortable against lesser competition, but rushed against the alternative due to the history of the offensive line. He is conditioned to be a crash dummy. That’s where Helton needs to come in. I suspect Helton will do so, it is just a matter of time. The plays are there in his pocket. And his quarterback is capable. The offense needs to take some more shots and the lob to Palmer was evident of that.
Tennessee Has A Punter
Most people don’t care about having a dynamic punter, but think about where this team would have been without Joe Doyle yesterday. Brent Cimaglia has yet to have an opportunity to showcase his full ability now that he has full-reign of the field goal duties. The rest of the special teams unit is atrocious. After a booming punt that pinned Georgia on their own 2, the special teams unit was flagged for illegal formation twice. They were penalized a total of three times for the same infraction the whole game.
The return game has been non-existent both in punt and kickoff coverage. However, Tennessee’s coverage units haven’t broken yet. Thanks to Doyle, the defense has a little help from somewhere. The Knoxville product has been a pleasant surprise. Saturday was his best performance to date. He logged seven punts with an average of 47.1 yards. His long was 71 and he pinned Georgia inside the 20 twice. He was the defense’s best friend considering the offense didn’t cross midfield until midway through the second half. His performance might not warrant Trevor Daniel comparisons yet, but throw a No. 93 jersey on him and no one will know the difference right now.