The 2018 final exam proved to be another failing grade for the Tennessee Volunteers. Yet again, the Vols offense struggled to find rhythm, the defense was slashed and dashed, the special teams didn’t contribute, and the coaching staff was out-coached.
A once proud program is on the precipice of disaster. A decade of disaster is dangerously close to turning into the reality of relegation. Tennessee hadn’t lost three straight to in-state rival Vanderbilt since 1920-1926.
Tennessee Vols Game Grades Vanderbilt Edition
Tennessee’s offense was anemic against a pedestrian Vanderbilt defense. It wasn’t just the offensive line today. The receivers couldn’t come up with the 50/50 balls and quarterback Jarrett Guarantano just couldn’t find any rhythm on the day. There’s clearly some drama in the locker room over the offense’s inability to move the ball, as well.
Offensive Stat of the Game: Jarrett Guarantano, 13-29, 139 yards, 4.8 yards/attempt.
Guarantano looked shell-shocked from the first drive of the game. His decision-making wasn’t as sharp as it was most of the season. He had several poor throws, more than normal. Yes, Vanderbilt pressured him at times, but his 45% completion rate was as much on him as it was on anyone else. Guarantano is the key to Tennessee’s success, and when he’s just average, this is what happens. He missed a wide open Jauan Jennings and floated one to Marquez Callaway in the second half when the game was still in play.
Running Backs: C-
If you take away Ty Chandler‘s 75 yard touchdown run to start the second half, the Vols running backs managed a total of 40 yards. Neither Chandler nor Tim Jordan could get anything going, primarily because they were continually pushed into the middle of the line. They also were mysteriously absent in the receiving game, something that has worked well at times during the season. Jordan recorded the only reception, for five yards, for the backs.
They’ve been the best position unit for Tennessee the entire season. They couldn’t make it work today. Josh Palmer had a nice catch to start the game and Callaway had a late touchdown reception, but everything else in between was a losing battle with the Vanderbilt defensive backs. Neither Palmer nor Jennings could get those 50/50 balls that they’ve won most of the season. Tyson Helton’s inability to get Dominick Wood-Anderson integrated into the passing attack is reminiscent of the Alvin Kamara under-utilization tragedy in the Butch Jones era.
Offensive Line: D
This didn’t surprise many people, but the offensive line struggled on Saturday. It wasn’t as bad as other games, as Tennessee didn’t have many zero- or negative-yardage plays. But they couldn’t give Guarantano the time he needed to get in rhythm in the vertical passing game. And they certainly couldn’t get any running lanes established in the interior of the line. Marcus Tatum struggled at left tackle all day, particularly in pass protection. Jerome Carvin had some good play, especially when asked to pull and lead, in relief of ejected Jahmir Johnson.
Tennessee fans will have nightmares of Kyle Shurmur for years. Shurmur built an NFL Draft resume out of film from his four career games against Tennessee. The Vanderbilt signal caller set the tone early, starting the game with 14 straight completions. Vanderbilt had 40 offensive snaps against the Tennessee defense in the first half, establishing a 17-0 halftime lead. When Tennessee established some momentum and had field position, the Tennessee defense couldn’t stop the Commodores offense. Vanderbilt put the game away with attitude in the fourth quarter.
Defensive Stat of the Game: Kyle Shurmur starts 14-14, 156 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT.
Defensive Line: C-
The defensive line was simply over-matched and manhandled in the first half. The Vols defensive line couldn’t get any sustained pressure on Shurmur and was gashed multiple times in the running game. This unit had three offsides penalties, two on third down. The second half proved better, with the defensive line playing much better against the run and getting slightly more pressure against Shurmur.
Tennessee’s linebacking unit was uncommonly poor in the first half on Saturday. They particularly struggled in pass coverage. Daniel Bituli, Deandre Johnson, and Darrin Kirkland, Jr. all had serious misses against the Vanderbilt passing attack. Part of that is skill, but part of it was clearly Vanderbilt coaches exploiting something they saw on film. They were able to get Johnson in one-on-one coverage in the open field at least twice. That’s scheme. The second half was much better, particularly with tackling and aggressiveness at the line of scrimmage. Darrell Taylor was good at times, but couldn’t consistently pressure Shurmur.
Defensive Backs: D
The Vols’ defensive backs picked up the slack on poor play in the second half. While the line and linebackers improved as the game went on, the backs steadily got worse. Bryce Thompson and Baylen Buchanan got beat on big pass plays at the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth, leading to Vanderbilt’s third touchdown of the night. What little energy the Vols found at halftime was snuffed out with that touchdown.
Tackling was an issue at times as well, particularly in the first half. Alontae Taylor missed a critical tackle on third down, contributing to another ten play scoring drive for the Commodores. Micah Abernathy was driven out of the end zone on Vanderbilt’s second touchdown, an end-around play to his corner.
Special Teams: C
The normally reliable Joe Doyle struggled punting. He couldn’t pin Vanderbilt deep in their own territory twice in the first half and had two bad punts in the third quarter. Marquez Callaway had a decent return to set up the offense at midfield in the critical third period, but, of course, the offense couldn’t capitalize. Tennessee was average, at best, on Saturday on special teams, as they were all season.
It’s fair to take a close look at some of the coaching performances on Saturday.
On offense, again the Vols came out and looked timid. The Vols had a ten play drive to open the game, but only managed 40 yards. They couldn’t put together another sustained drive for the remainder of the game. Offensive coordinator Tyson Helton never got in rhythm, nor could he get his quarterback in rhythm. He was over-committed to estbalishing the inside running game, even after finding success on the outside. Strangely, Pruitt had a copy of the offensive play call sheet all day. Helton’s inability to get Wood-Anderson and the running backs into the game is certainly a concern.
On defense, the performance simply doesn’t match the attitude. Vanderbilt’s offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig clearly out-coached Pruitt and his defensive staff. Vanderbilt’s offense got the match-ups they wanted all afternoon. There’s not a lot of good will and support for this coaching staff heading into the holiday season.
This off season will signal a familiar refrain for Vols fans. Another seasons of excuses for a team that under-performed. “They’re too young.” “They’re not his guys.” “We don’t have the athletes.” This was Vanderbilt, and it was a massacre. There is simply no excuse for Tennessee to ever lose to Vanderbilt for three straight seasons by a combined score of 125-72.
Is Pruitt the answer for a program that is desperately seeking to return to national prominence. Or is he yet another false prophet for a fan base still in their desert exodus?
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