KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – As the Tennessee football team returned to practice on Monday at Haslam Field, head coach Jeremy Pruitt said the Vols had their best offensive game of the season on Saturday in the 27-24 loss at South Carolina.
Despite the defeat, Tennessee was able to methodically use quick passes and screens to keep the Gamecocks off balance early while converting a season-high 68.8 percent of third downs (11-of-16) and committing zero turnovers. The Vols lacked explosive plays, but put together several long, clock-eating drives.
“Far and away this was our best output offensively,” Pruitt said. “We weren’t just relying on explosive plays, but we need to create more, and we had opportunities to do that, but we had breakdowns in protection. A couple of times I didn’t feel like we threw the ball to the right side of the field, and then we had a drop. The plays were there to be made from the explosive standpoint, but I thought from an execution [standpoint] and kind of getting more plays right, that was far and away our best game offensively. We didn’t turn the ball over, [and] converted third downs. We just killed ourselves with penalties.”
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Jarrett Guarantano tallied career highs in completions (27) and attempts (39), while throwing for 207 yards and two touchdowns. Guarantano was knocked out of the game a week earlier at Alabama in the second quarter, but he played every snap against South Carolina.
“I thought he showed a lot of courage, played really hard and was a really good leader for our team,” Pruitt said. “We just need to fix those other plays, and he can do that. We ask him to do a lot of things, which, I think it helps our offense. He gets us in the right plays in the run game, we can make checks from run to pass, he can change protections. There’s a lot of demand on him and he can handle it. There’s just a few things that we got to fix from this past week.”
Guarantano has started all eight games in 2018, completing 64.4 percent of his passes for 1,399 yards and eight touchdowns with just two interceptions. He ranks fourth in the SEC in pass efficiency rating (144.78) and fifth in completion percentage, while only Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa has thrown less interceptions.
Tennessee’s offense also received a spark from junior running back Carlin Fils-aime at Williams-Brice Stadium. Fils-aime returned to the offensive backfield last week after moving to cornerback last spring. He rushed three times for 20 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown early in the third quarter that gave the Vols a 21-9 lead.
Tennessee’s offense stalled in the fourth quarter, however, and penalties ultimately doomed the Vols, as South Carolina came back to win.
“There’s lots of lessons that we can learn, and we’ve got to take them and move forward,” Pruitt said. “I thought that last week we practiced really well, and I think it showed in the game and how we performed, but we have to be able to finish and find ways to win games like that.”
Next Up: Charlotte
Pruitt and the Vols know they cannot overlook this week’s opponent, Charlotte, with three SEC games looming down the stretch. The 49ers bring a 4-4 record to Neyland Stadium after defeating Southern Miss, 20-17, on Saturday. Charlotte is coached by Brad Lambert, who helped move the program form FCS to FBS. He was an assistant at Wake Forest, Georgia and Marshall before taking the reigns of Charlotte.
The 49ers are paced by a defense that is yielding only 89.8 rushing yards per game (No. 6 in the nation) and 318.6 total yards per game (No. 18 in the nation), while linebacker Juwan Foggie leads the country in interceptions with six.
“We’ve got a really good opponent this week in Charlotte,” Pruitt said. “Their coaching staff has a ton of experience. They’re very well coached, offensively and defensively. They eliminate the run in the run game. They get lots of turnovers. They give you multiple looks offensively and then run the football. I know they’ve had an injury at quarterback, but they’ve got a guy that has experience. The guys are well coached in the special teams. We’ve got to focus on us and try to improve, I think when we do that it shows up on Saturdays. Then we have to take it to the game and we have to do a good job of finishing in the game.”
Saturday’s game (4 p.m., SEC Network-Alternate) marks Homecoming for the University of Tennessee. Former Tennessee defensive back Inky Johnson is this year’s Homecoming Grand Marshall.
Tennessee Player Quotes
Senior DE Kyle Phillips
On the struggles playing at home this season:
“It all starts with our preparation. That’s what we have to fix. Starting today we have to make sure we come out and give our best effort and know these next games are very important. We can still have a pretty decent season if we win out. We just have to make sure we focus each and everyday and keep on getting better.”
On getting to a bowl game:
“We definitely need to try and do the best we can to win out. I think we have a good team, but we just make too many mistakes. The little things have just really hurt us. We don’t have a lot of margin for error and we have to take advantage of that opportunity to do the best we can. This program is a top ten program, and if we want this program to go to the next level then we have to do better.”
On hearing the Trey Smith news:
“That was definitely really tough, but Trey has been so positive on the whole situation. It really makes you think how blessed we are to be able to play. The guy is such a great player, he was highly recruited, he’s been a great player in college, and a guy that is really so unselfish. He’s a guy that really enjoys his team and the guys on the team. It is really a blessing to see how well he is taking it, and it’s a great feeling.”
Junior DB Baylen Buchanan
On the defense’s play against South Carolina:
“Great defenses are able to sustain the whole game and that’s something that we didn’t do. We got to do a better job closing out games.”
On how important it is for the program to get back to a bowl game this year:
“I think it’s real important that we get back to a bowl, but I feel like we have to take it one game at a time and focus on the next team. We can’t overlook Charlotte, I heard that they are a good team and their run defense is really good. I heard they do some good things on offense too, so it’s something that we can’t overlook. We just have to focus on this week.”
On why the team has seemed to play better on the road:
“You know, I’m not sure why that is. I really don’t think a road game or playing at home has anything to do with it. I think it’s more about us and how we execute on the field. We have to do a better job executing and that’s going to be every weekend. We’ve got to keep improving.”
On what he’s seen from Jeremy Banks since his move to linebacker:
“He can hit. I remember the first play that I saw him, he went in there and he hit somebody, just lowered his shoulder. He’s going to be good. He’s coming from offense to defense, so you know he’s going to have to learn the scheme, but when he gets it down, he’s going to be a great player.”
Junior WR Marquez Callaway
On the third-down success against South Carolina:
“We had a great game plan going in. We knew what they wanted to do on third down, so we built off of that and executed the play. Everything seemed to open up for us. We knew they were going to play a lot of man and three deep, especially on third down. We had to get the ball out quick.”
On the team’s third down mentality:
“We have to do what we have to; to get to stay on the field. We have to have sustained drives and be consistent with that so that we can let our defense rest.”
On playing at home vs. playing on the road:
“Playing at home is going to be big especially since the next three games are going to be at home. We’ll have our home crowd here with us. Playing on the road in the SEC is hard to do. When it gets to that, we definitely have a mental edge. We are there with just our fans that are there, so playing away brings us together.”
On the quick passing game:
“That’s what all receivers want to do, get the ball in their hands quick and make a guy miss and get up field.”
On having long drives:
“Sustaining drives and having third down success was our main point heading into the week. If we keep drives alive on third down, it will tire out the defense and motivate the offense to keep it going.”
Redshirt Senior DL Paul Bain
On what made South Carolina more effective:
“I’m going to have to look at the film and have more time to assess it, but out there all of the mistakes were on our part, it was really Tennessee beating Tennessee. South Carolina being the respectable team that they are, they kept fighting and turned out to be the victors on Saturday.”
On how they adjust on the field:
“I think going into any game, preparation-wise, it’s going to be hard to get what every team does down pat. The game is continuously growing and every team is putting in new plays and formations. They’re studying us just like we’re studying them, so Saturday there’s going to be some new things, nuances, that we have not seen before. It’s best for us to adjust and handle it the best way we can.”
On how they dealt with South Carolina’s tempo:
“I feel like we did a good job and they were trying to catch us off guard a little bit, but we were very conditioned and well-coached for it.”
On how the team has improved this season:
“I definitely feel like we have improved. I feel like we’re a stronger team mentally and physically. I feel like we’re more prepared going into games, and I feel like right now we’re a very good football team, but we’re just making a lot of minor mistakes that cost us these close games.”