In the tempest that is Tennessee‘s 2017 season, tonight’s win against Southern Miss was a brief respite of calm. This was the Vols squad that we were promised. Disciplined, big plays, and a full team effort. This return to sound, fundamental football was easily the biggest take-away of this game.
It certainly wasn’t the best game ever. Continued poor snaps, a ton of Southern Miss penalties, and two critical Golden Eagles turnovers made this game practically unloseable. But that doesn’t really matter too much. Tennessee will take a relatively easy win any way they can get them these days.
Tennessee Game Grades Southern Miss Edition
The offense still wasn’t great. But they did enough to put the game away mid-way through the third quarter. Most importantly, the Vols weathered a change at the quarterback position. Will McBride replaced Jarrett Guarantano at the beginning of the second half due to Guarantano’s ankle injury. The Vols also survived continued injuries along the offensive line.
Offensive Stat of the Game: Two Tennessee touchdowns off of two Southern Miss turnovers.
Guarantano continues to show both progress and development. The Vols first offensive series — enabled by a 50-yard kickoff return — was the perfect start to the game. The offense struggled, however, for the remainder of the half. Guarantano’s ankle was clearly affecting his passing and running. His deep ball continues to be just a bit off. McBride relieved Guarantano in the second half and played well, considering the situation. McBride, too, was just off on a couple of deep passes. He did have a couple of nice rushes. This made the Southern Miss defense continue to respect the quarterback as part of the read option, which in turn allowed John Kelly to do the main damage against the Golden Eagles defense.
Running Backs: B-
A week after Ty Chandler went off against Kentucky, John Kelly reasserted himself as the top dog in the Vols backfield. Kelly only had 79 yards, but that included two touchdown rushes. Kelly and Chandler both continued to be workhorses, grinding the Southern Miss defense all game long. Both Kelly and Chandler can improve in pass protection — especially with a decimated offensive line. In that department, it’s more technique than effort.
Short yardage situations were also slightly sub-par. Tennessee failed to convert on at least two third-and-less-than-three. Of course, part of that is on the offensive line. But with the talent of Kelly and Chandler, you’d like to see them make something out of nothing to keep a drive going.
Marquez Callaway had the one highlight grab on another slow passing night. Additionally, the Vols finally got the tight ends involved in the game. The Wolf brothers had three of the ten total completions on the night. The most noticeable difference tonight was the separation between receivers and backs. Tennessee’s quarterbacks rarely had to force a ball into a tight spot. That’s something that hasn’t happened a lot this season.
Offensive Line: C
For an offensive line that was at essentially 50% strength for the game and had to shuffle due to in-game injuries, they actually did fairly well. Devante Brooks, playing meaningful football for the first time in two years and severely undersized, struggled in pass protection, but wasn’t a game-deciding liability. Again, though, there were errant snaps that stymied two drives. Both Jashon Robertson and Coleman Thomas had poor snaps on the evening.
This was a solid effort from the Vols defense. This Southern Miss offense isn’t bad. They’re balanced, averaging 265 yards passing and 175 yards rushing per game in 2017. And while they’re a little behind at the quarterback and receiver positions, running back Ito Smith is a high caliber performer.
The defense caused turnovers at critical points and really helped out the offense, yet again.
Defensive Stat of the Game: Southern Miss pass completion percentage: 38.2%
Defensive Line: B
Darrell Taylor came back from a two-game suspension and made his presence felt with a forced fumble and a sack. Reginald McKenzie played well against the run and had probably his most complete game of the season. The defense tackle unit, including McKenzie was very good — almost excellent — against Southern Miss’ rushing attack. Another good sign was the three tipped passes caused by the defense line.
Much like the defensive line, the linebacking unit, led again by Colton Jumper, were solid. The most noticeable aspect of their performance was the solid tackling. That was a common theme throughout the night — sound fundamentals. You’d be hard-pressed to find more than five missed tackles during the whole game from the linebackers.
Defensive Backs: B
As good as the defensive backs were — Emmanuel Moseley had a key interception, Rashaan Gaulden had a fumble recovery, and Nigel Warrior was hitting guys all over the field — there was a lot of opportunities left on the field. At least two interceptions were dropped off of deflections. Additionally, Moseley got beat in the first quarter on a deep pass. Looking ahead to Missouri, these mistakes won’t be masked by a clearly inferior quarterback. The defensive back unit will be tested much more in Columbia next week.
Special Teams: A-
Here me out here. I’m not advocating for keeping head coach Butch Jones. But the fact of the matter is this team was prepared to play this weekend. Only three penalties in the game, none until late in the second half. Very few mental errors. No turnovers. Good assignment defense. Excellent tackling on defense.
This was the most fundamentally sound game — easily — of this campaign for the Vols. And this in another tumultuous week. You’ve got to wonder why this team couldn’t be like this in any of the previous eight weeks. Yes, the opponent wasn’t Georgia or Alabama. And yes, Southern Miss had two turnovers and 14 penalties for 120 yards, but the Vols looked mentally sharp. Criticize with criticism is due, and credit when credit is due.
Tennessee travels to Columbia, Missouri to face a resurgent Missouri Tigers team next week. The Tigers’ offense is rolling now after blowing out Florida today. Meanwhile, Tennessee needs to win two of the next three to get bowl eligible, and needs to win at least one to avoid the first eight-loss season in school history. It’ll be a big step to get a quality road win next week.
The defense will be tested, especially the secondary. Is this new fundamentally sound Vols team ready to finish the season strong? Or is the 2017 version of Tennessee fundamentally flawed?