Following last week’s matchup against Alabama, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt said that the game may have just been “too big” for some of his players.
On Saturday against South Carolina, the game as a whole wasn’t too big for the Vols, but some pivotal moments were.
The Gamecocks took advantage of those moments for a 12-point comeback and a 27-24 victory in a game that the Vols desperately needed to win to keep their bowl hopes alive.
Now, Tennessee (3-5, 1-4 SEC) must win at least three of its final four games to clinch a berth in postseason play. That won’t be easy, but here are a few takeaways that Vol fans can use to bolster their hopes heading into the final stretch.
1. Vols’ depth shows improvement
On Thursday, Tennessee announced that starting left tackle Trey Smith would be out for an indefinite amount of time, as blood clots had resurfaced in the sophomore’s lungs. While Pruitt assured fans that the program’s main concern lies in Smith’s overall health as opposed to his on-field impact, fans and media members still wondered how the the Vols’ shaky offensive front would fare against the Gamecocks.
Marcus Tatum all but erased those concerns. Starting in Smith’s place, Tatum helped the Vols’ offensive line hold its own against the Gamecocks, which only netted two hurries and two sacks on a Tennessee front that allowed three sacks on average in 2017.
Those two sacks proved crucial for South Carolina, though, as the final blow came on a fourth-and-10 near the end of the game.
With one shot left for Tennessee, Gamecocks defensive lineman D.J. Wonnum streaked past Tatum and into the backfield, hammered Jarrett Guarantano and forced a turnover on downs to give the ball back to South Carolina.
Tatum’s pass protection wasn’t ideal there, but neither was Guarantano’s pocket presence. That leads to the next point.
2. Guarantano needing faster releases, more accuracy
Several times this season, Pruitt has been asked about the Vols’ offensive line. Several times, he’s answered the same way: that the line must do better, but that the quarterback must also find ways to release the ball faster. That last part falls on Guarantano, who’s been the sole starter to this point.
In crucial passing situations this season, Guarantano has come up big on several occasions. But he’s also gotten hit far more than any SEC quarterback should. For that to be avoided, and for Tennessee to have its best chance at flexibility on offense, Guarantano must unload faster. That will take some of the pressure off an offensive line that has already lost what is indisputably its best player in Trey Smith.
Quicker throws will also allow dynamic playmakers like Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings to catch the ball mid-stride, as opposed to backtracking like we’ve seen some this season.
On Saturday, though, several of Guarantano’s passes flew well over the heads of their intended targets. Part of that could be due to South Carolina’s defensive push, but in a game where Tennessee needed big plays in its passing game, the Vols averaged just 5.3 yards on average through the air. Guarantano’s longest throw of the day went to Josh Palmer for 20 yards, but he would’ve had several bigger throws if not for the inaccuracies.
A number of those passes went to Ty Chandler, who notched a career-high six receptions, but Guarantano’s ability to target his receivers is vital for an offense that possesses big-play ability at virtually every skill position. On Saturday, though that ability just didn’t seem to be enough to overcome a Vols defense that seemed to crumble when it counted most.
3. Defense needs work in tight-game situations
Through most of the Vols’ matchup against the Gamecocks, Tennessee’s defense proved stingy against a solid South Carolina rushing attack. On their first four offensive drives, the Gamecocks looked weak. The first and last of those drives ended in punts, while the second one featured an interception from Shy Tuttle. A Gamecock field goal came after South Carolina had found its way inside the Tennessee 2-yard line, and a goal-line stand of that magnitude kept the Gamecocks at bay through the first half.
South Carolina scored its first touchdown near the end of the second quarter, as Jake Bentley found Deebo Samuel in the back of the end zone from three yards out. Samuel brought down a spectacular one-handed catch for the score, and things seemed to fall apart from there for the Vols’ defense.
After Tennessee made the score 24-16, the Gamecocks responded quickly. Bentley hit Bryan Edwards for a 73-yard bomb to put South Carolina close to the goal line. Rico Dowdle found the end zone two plays later, and Bentley punched in the tying two-point conversion himself.
Ultimately, Tennessee could have pulled out the win had its offense been able to convert late in the game. But, in order for the Vols to succeed through the final slate of games this season, the defense must provide an anchor for what are sure to be three more wire-to-wire endings.
All in all, Tennessee didn’t put up a bad performance against South Carolina. In fact, it was much-improved after last week’s showing against the Crimson Tide. A simple improvement won’t clinch bowl eligibility, though. It will take a lot more than that to reach an even record and a postseason matchup, which would be equally incredible feats given this program’s recent turmoil.
Edited by Robert Hughes
Featured image via Cory Sanning/The Volunteer Channel.