Will Muschamp’s reign over the Tennessee Volunteers officially ended on Saturday. The coach was 7-0 against the Vols lifetime with three wins as the coach at Florida and four as South Carolina’s. Both teams were itching for a win to keep their bowl hopes alive, and the second half performance by the Vols confirmed the boys in orange aren’t dead yet.
The Gamecocks took the first play from scrimmage to the house in the form of a 75 yard touchdown by Shi Smith. Tennessee responded by starting Knoxville’s Batman, Jauan Jennings, at QB with a wildcat look on the first play. Freshman QB J.T. Shrout then took the reigns and lead the Vols down field for a successful field goal try by Brent Cimaglia to make it 7-3.
Both offenses were stagnant for the remainder of the first quarter. Then, Marquez Callaway ignited the home crowd in Neyland Stadium with a 64 yard punt return for a touchdown with 10 minutes left in the second quarter. South Carolina responded with a long drive of their own, which resulted in a one yard touchdown run on 4th & goal by Mon Denson to make the score 14-10.
Jauan Jennings caught two long balls the next drive, the second being a gutsy broken tackle filled 48 yard touchdown reception to push the Vols back out front 17-14. Ryan Hilinski of SC lead a two minute drill down the field, culminated by possibly the catch of the year by Bryan Edwards at the goal line. South Carolina finished off the first half with a touchdown making the score 21-17 at the break.
I don’t know if Michael Jordan was waiting in the locker room with his secret stuff or what, but the Vols were a completely different team in the second half. On the first play of the second half, Jarrett Guarantano found Marquez Callaway on a deep post for an immediate red zone opportunity. The Vols stalled and settled for a missed field goal. But after an immediate stop by the defense, Guarantano found Jauan Jennings in the back of the endzone on 3rd & 14 for his second touchdown of the day making the score 24-21. After that moment, Tennessee never looked back.
Shrout took back control under center after an injury to Guarantano and found Marquez Callaway in stride for a 56 yard touchdown the very next drive. The top had officially popped in Neyland, and the nowhere near capacity crowd re-energized the team to a point that hadn’t been reached in ages. The Tennessee defense knocked down a Hilinski pass on 4th & 2 to retake possession as the fourth quarter began.
Shrout found Jauan Jennings again down the left sideline for a huge play following the turnover on downs, giving the Vols another redzone opportunity. The drive stalled and Brent Cimaglia came on for another successful field goal making the score 34-21. Tennessee proceeded to force another 3 & out which resulted in a blocked punt by Daniel Bituli who also recovered the ball in the endzone for a UT touchdown. The late score made the count 41-21, which in the end would be the final.
Jauan Jennings & Daniel Bituli were absolutely magnificent and cemented themselves in the hearts of Vol fans for life. Jennings had 7 receptions for 174 yards & 2 touchdowns while also taking wildcat snaps all night. Bituli had 15 tackles, a TFL, a blocked punt, and a touchdown. The two gave the fans two of the best single player performances by Volunteers in ages. They were both rewarded with SEC Offensive & Defensive players of the week, respectively.
UT played three players at QB on Saturday and it actually worked in their favor. Tennessee had a season high 351 yards passing as a team. Jarrett Guarantano accounted for 229 of the yards, while J.T. Shrout threw for 122 of his own on seven completions. JG made a lot of the right throws bringing fan and coach confidence way up from the depths it fell to after the Alabama debacle. Shrout announced himself as a real deal college player, making the Vols QB outlook much better than it had been in previous weeks.
The special teams deserves a huge shout out as well as they accounted for two touchdowns on Saturday. Jeremy Pruitt chooses to play a lot of starters on his special team units and on game day we found out why. The return for a touchdown by Marquez Callaway and the blocked punt by Bituli were arguably the two largest plays of the game and locked in the win for Tennessee.
As expected, the offense continues to build on each week and Jim Chaney has everyone believing this team can score points on a consistent basis. The Volunteers threw the ball all over the yard regardless of who was taking the snaps, and the run game is finally setting a foundation weekly with Jordan, Chandler, and Gray sharing carries. One starts looking at Tennessee’s recent performances, and there’s a very strong possibility this football team is turning a corner.
The fact of the matter is this, Tennessee lost 4 of their first 5. With losses against Georgia State & BYU. UT was primed for an absolutely putrid season, possibly the worst in school history. But after wins against Mississippi State and South Carolina, and the level of effort being shown weekly, a bowl game and maybe even a seven win regular season is totally obtainable. Tennessee’s remaining games are against UAB, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt. All four of those teams are completely and utterly beatable, and don’t offer nearly the challenge the front half of UT’s schedule has thrown at them.
Jeremy Pruitt seems to have this entire team bought into his rugged mindset. This team is tough and the defense is playing with a nasty attitude. Only time will tell where this team will finish, but I would be surprised if the Vols aren’t playing postseason football in a couple months.