It’s time to start asking some tough questions for the Tennessee Volunteers. After a disappointing loss to South Carolina last week, the Vols came out completely unprepared against the Charlotte 49ers. More importantly, Tennessee demonstrated regression from last week.
Homecoming wasn’t what the fans and alumni wanted to see. The grades this week are based on the questions asked every week. But it’s time to go beyond the basic questions and start asking some tough questions in Knoxville.
Tennessee Vols Game Grades Charlotte Edition
Saturday was Tennessee’s worst offensive performance of the entire season from start to finish. The Vols running game was absolutely embarrassing, totaling just 20 yards on 26 attempts against a Conference USA defense. The passing game was better, but certainly not what it should be against Charlotte. The Vols managed one touchdown on the day and only one drive with more than six plays.
Offensive Stat of the Game: 11 Running Plays for no gain or negative yardage. (24 rushing yards total)
Jarrett Guarantano wasn’t as sharp as we’ve seen him this season. He was off on a few throws. But more importantly, his decision on receiver selection in key situations was questionable. Even when the offensive line was able to give him some time, Guarantano went well short of the first down marker.
Running Backs: D
Sure, there were almost no running lanes. And yes, Ty Chandler only had two carries. But the running backs made no impact in the passing game nor was their pass protection up to par. Two decent carries on the last drive of the game kept this from being an abject failing grade.
A week after their worst performance of the season, Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer brought the receivers back to the forefront of the position groups. Palmer had a beautiful touchdown reception and was on the receiving end of the worst looking successful flea-flicker you will ever see. Callaway was his consistently reliable self and worked to get a key pass interference call late in the fourth to help Tennessee get out of their own end zone. Dominick Wood-Anderson showed a glimpse of what he could provide. Like Chandler, Jauan Jennings didn’t see much action today.
Offensive Line: F-
Drew Richmond continues his inexplicably disappointing season Saturday. The former highly rated recruit had two formation penalties and a bad missed block in the first half and was summarily benched. Nathan Niehaus replaced Richmond at right tackle and then gave a bad sack. It doesn’t take a football mind to see that the 49ers absolutely controlled the line of scrimmage against the Vols. Jahmir Johnson had the once-in-a-season offensive facemask to end a drive late in the game. When the tough questions are asked, the first one should be about why this group isn’t getting better.
The defense saved Homecoming 2018 from becoming a disaster. The 49ers outgained the Vols and held the edge in time of possession. It was Charlotte’s inability to establish a passing game that kept them from scoring their first win over a Power Five team.
Defensive Stat of the Game: Charlotte 0-2 on 4th Down.
Defensive Line: B-
The defensive line was outmuscled in the running game, but got better as the game went on. Kyle Phillips continued his second-half surge with another dominant game. Phillips had two pass break ups and two punishing hits on the 49ers quarterback. Shy Tuttle made two key plays on short yardage in the second half. And Emmit Gooden showed signs of progress today. But the 49ers were far too effective at moving the line of scrimmage to be happy about the line’s play.
Tennessee’s linebackers continued to improve. Other than Phillips, Daniel Bituli was the best Vols defensive player on the day. Bituli had 13 tackles on the day. Darrin Kirkland, Jr. was effective in the middle and exemplified the bend-but-don’t-break day for the Vols defense. Will Ignont also had some key stops against the Charlotte run. The only weakness today was in pass defense where Bituli and Ignont let go of receivers who were able to convert first downs.
Defensive Backs: C-
Tennessee’s defensive backs didn’t get tested against a strong passing attack on Saturday. But when they were test, receivers were open. Baylen Buchanan had an unnecessary pass interference call. They were able to get pressure on the secondary blitzes. The 49ers passing woes were more about their quarterback than it was about the Vols secondary.
Special Teams: B
Marquez Callaway had Tennessee’s first punt return in two seasons on a busted punt. Brent Cimaglia missed a field goal. And the coverage teams didn’t allow Charlotte to build any momentum. A second great Callaway return was negated by a bad Tyler Byrd penalty.
It was clear that this team wasn’t ready to play today. And if Tennessee plays against Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt like they played today, they’ll finish with eight losses for the second straight season, and the second time in 120 years.
The promise of this season was that Tennessee would look different in November than they looked in September. The Vols didn’t show any progress today from their games against UTEP and ETSU. The offensive line hasn’t shown any improvement whatsoever. And what about the decision not to rush the punter on 4th and 30 from the one yard line? With a sputtering offense and no risk to rushing, why would Tennessee be conservative?
It’s time to start asking tough questions. A lot of those questions are addressed to the coaching staff.
Tennessee gets a Kentucky team heading in the wrong direction next week at home. It’ll be a chance to get back on schedule for a bowl game. But Kentucky has a potent running attack, and was the ninth-ranked CFP team last week. Can the Vols answer the bell after a disappointing effort against Charlotte?
That’ll be the tough question of the day.
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