Marquez Callaway broke through a sea of white jerseys and saw nothing but green in front of him. A split second later, the ball popped out of his hands and he was forced to scramble hectically to recover it.
That sequence explains Tennessee’s season-opening matchup with Georgia State in simplest terms.
Jarrett Guarantano threw for 311 yards and two touchdowns and Jauan Jennings added seven catches for 108 yards and a score but the Vols were unable to stop Georgia State’s offense late, succumbing to the Panthers 38-30 at Neyland Stadium.
The loss marks the first time Tennessee has dropped a game in which it was favored by 25 or more points since Wyoming in 2008.
It also marked the program’s first loss to a non-Power Five school since that same night.
What looked like a simple upset bid early quickly shifted in the Panthers’ favor late as they continued to expose the Vols’ defense. In the end, their strategy proved to be too much for Tennessee and head coach Jeremy Pruitt shouldered much of the blame.
“Defensively, it would be hard for me to point out anything that we did well,” Pruitt said. “We’ve got to teach the guys how to play the plays, line up and be able to execute.”
Taken aback early, Tennessee found itself in a bind right from the opening kick as Georgia State proved to be the aggressors on both sides of the ball early. Falling behind 7-0 just minutes into the opening quarter, the Vols were forced to quickly gather themselves - and they did just that.
Rallying to take a 14-7 lead by the midway point of the second period, it seemed the Vols were well on their way to an emphatic victory at home.
That’s when the hinges came loose, and Tennessee’s starting quarterback shouldered most of the blame.
“I definitely put the weight on my shoulders when it comes to wins and losses,” Guarantano said. “I could have made more plays and I think there’s a lot of things to learn from in this game.”
While Guarantano’s turnovers late certainly didn’t help UT’s case, they weren’t the only mistakes the Vols made down the stretch as the Panthers surged ahead.
Countless times, Tennessee found itself at the mercy of an offensive attack that continued to gash it for big gains. Whether on the ground or through the air, the Vols continued to give up chunk plays at inopportune times.
For redshirt senior Darrell Taylor, the loss served as an eye-opener for both the offense and defense, something he that he believes will only benefit the Vols moving forward.
“It’s a wake-up call and makes you think we have to play better,” Taylor said. “We have to come harder in practice and we have to get in the film room even more now...this will definitely make us better in the future.”
Heading into this season with significantly higher expectations than a year ago, Tennessee’s 2019 campaign certainly didn’t get off to the promising start that many had hoped for leading up to Saturday’s matchup.
That doesn’t mean their confidence is shaken, however.
“Going into this season we had high expectations and none of those expectations go away,” Guarantano said. “A lot of teams lose the first game...we just have to go back to the drawing board.”
The only problem is, not many teams lose the first game in which they were favored by more than 25 points. That doesn’t mean all hope is lost, however.
Despite suffering perhaps the most humiliating loss in program history, the Vols’ offense exceeded expectations in terms of yardage and made plays throughout.
Jennings, who dealt with nagging injuries all of last year, looks as if he’s back to his old self, Callaway seems to be back on track and Tennessee’s young talent showed both poise and promise in difficult situations.
It all starts with getting back to the basics and Pruitt thinks a long self-observation may be in order.
“Everybody needs to look in the mirror because that’s what I’m going to do,” Pruitt said. “And say ‘what can I do better to help our football team?’
He’s not excluding himself from that group either. In fact, the Vols’ leading man will be doing some soul-searching of his own as he prepares his team for the next challenge.
“And I’m going to start with me.”