Judging by the box score, most fans would think it was the same old story. Alabama dominating Tennessee for the 13th straight season without any sort of fight from the men in orange & white. But the game tape tells a different story. Jeremy Pruitt and company had the the #1 team in the country nervous for three quarters late Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. In the end, mistakes, and an unnecessary roughness call that will be hard to forget were too much for Tennessee.
The game began with a quick three & out for the visiting Volunteers who proceeded to punt the ball away to the Tide. Heisman candidate, Tua Tagovailoa, didn’t miss a beat. He quickly took his team down the field for an Alabama redzone opportunity after being given a short field by punt returner, Jaylen Waddle. Najee Harris finished off the drive with a one-yard touchdown run to push the Tide out front 7-0.
Directly following the Tide touchdown, Maurer pulled on a RPO look and fired a dart to Jauan Jennings over the middle. Jennings bobbled the ball and it was intercepted by Bama’s ball-hawking defense. It felt like the beginning of a book Vol fans have read a thousand times. Until the unthinkable happened. Tagovailoa’s only incompletion of the game came in the form of a critical interception by Nigel Warrior at the goal line. The pick prevented the Tide from taking a two score lead early in the first quarter. Maurer then retook the reigns and reminded everyone why Jeremy Pruitt’s system and mindset may be working after all.
Maurer led a confident looking 43 yard touchdown drive by the Vols. Topped off by a one-yard quarterback sneak to bring Tennessee even with the Tide 7-7 with 4:31 left to play in the first quarter. Tua responded with a touchdown drive of his own that culminated in a nine-yard touchdown run by Brian Robinson to push the Crimson Tide ahead 14-7. Directly before the end of the first quarter, Maurer was hit by a blitzing Alabama linebacker and was ruled out for the rest of the game with a concussion. Redshirt Junior Jarrett Guarantano proceeded to take over at quarterback for the underdog Volunteers.
Guarantano missed a wide open Jauan Jennings in the end zone and Tennessee settled for a field goal to bring the score to 14-10. Tua & Co. immediately responded with a big play filled touchdown drive capped off with another one-yard run by Najee Harris. On the next Alabama drive, Tagovailoa was sacked by Greg Emerson which resulted in a lower body injury sidelining him for the rest of the game. Bama missed a field goal after Jeremy Pruitt iced their kicker with all three of his remaining timeouts, resulting in a 21-10 halftime score in Tuscaloosa.
Tennessee forced a three & out after halftime and proceeded to add a field goal of their own. The aforementioned kick cut the Crimson Tide’s lead to 21-13 roughly halfway through the third quarter. On a critical third down after an incompletion, Tennessee’s Darrell Taylor was called for an unnecessary roughness penalty for using Mac Jones’ body to help him get up after a quarterback hurry. Tennessee never recovered from the iffy penalty. Alabama capitalized on the second chance and quickly scored a touchdown to go ahead 28-13 late in the third quarter.
Guarantano lead a gutsy drive all the way to Alabama’s goal line, until a broken play lead to a fumble that the Crimson Tide returned 100 yards to seal the game at 35-13. I felt a full recap was important to understand just how close this game was for the 35-point underdog Volunteers.
Jarrett Guarantano’s time of playing significant snaps may have officially ended with his up & over attempt on the QB sneak. The kid is a great team player, seems to have a great attitude, and genuinely cares about the Power T on his helmet. But somehow that passion cannot transfer to the field in the form of big plays. The fan base is ready to move on to someone fresh, even in terms of a backup. Maurer is a great first option but he’s having a hard time staying on the field. Even with that said, J.T. Shrout looks to have a great chance to catapult himself to the full time backup.
The defense, as they have all year, played their hearts out against a team that was averaging 51 points a game. The phantom unnecessary roughness call ended up breaking the Volunteers backs, but the effort was their from start to finish. Henry To’oto’o’s return in the second half was a big difference and the secondary continues to improve weekly.
The biggest takeaway from this week for Tennessee is the offense is finally beginning to find its identity. The run game, lead by Tim Jordan with 17 carries for 94 yards, was able to be effective against an always stout Alabama defense. When Maurer is healthy, the vertical passing game is dangerous and must be respected. Jim Chaney is slowly but surely creating an offensive unit that can put points on the board.
For almost a decade, Tennessee has been forced to use moral victories to fuel its fire for more football. On the surface, Saturday takes the form of one of those victories. But as a viewer watching from my couch at home, it didn’t. For the first time in a long time it felt like a regular Saturday night and Tennessee was competing in a big time football game. Jeremy Pruitt’s tough and rugged mindset is slowly seeping into this team’s identity.
The Vols are 2-5, but they will be expected to compete in all their remaining games against South Carolina, UAB, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt.
The light may finally be showing through the cracks for the young Vols.