Despite Tennessee falling to No. 3 Georgia 43-14 Saturday night, things weren’t all bad for Tennessee, 1-4, (0-2).
That sentence is one of the most telling statements about the state of the Tennessee football program but rings true on a night where Tennessee showed progress.
That progress starts at the quarterback position where Tennessee found its answer in freshman Brian Maurer. The Ocala, Florida native made his first career start Saturday night and brought the Vols an energy they have lacked at times this season.
“I’m not surprised by his performance at all,” Marquez Calloway said. “He does it all the time in practice. … We knew it was his first start. Internally that’s a big thing. … I think he handled it pretty well.”
Maurer made his introduction to the college football world on Tennessee’s second drive when the Vols hit Georgia with a double move and Maurer hit Calloway in stride for a 73-yard touchdown, tying the game at seven.
“That’s a receiver’s dream right there,” Calloway said. “Brian (Maurer) did a great job moving the pocket. I watched the replay and he did a great job stepping up. Coaches preach vision about that and not just taking off scrambling but work the pocket. He did a great job and it gave me a chance to get open.”
Tennessee’s next drive was Maurer’s most impressive drive of the game as the freshman went 5-for-7 with 66 yards while leading the Vols on a 75-yard scoring drive capped off by a 12-yard Jauan Jennings touchdown.
Jennings had another big night for the Vols catching seven passes for 114 yards, and his one touchdown gave the Vols a 14-10 lead.
It was downhill for the Vols after that.
Georgia would reclaim the lead with 1:59 left in the first half on a Jake Fromm pass to Lawrence Cager.
With Tennessee trailing 20-14, Pruitt trusted Maurer in the two-minute drill and the freshman quickly led the Vols in Georgia territory, but the drive stalled, and Tennessee had to settle for a 47-yard field goal try.
Brent Cimaglia, who was nine-for-nine on the year entering the game, missed wide right. Georgia capitalized on the 59 seconds left in the half, quickly moving 70 yards for a touchdown.
“We got to do a better job managing the clock,” Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “We have to keep it from them getting the ball there at the end.”
Tennessee wouldn’t recover as the Bulldogs slowly poured it on the Vols in the second half.
Maurer struggled in the second half, throwing for only 54 yards and turning it over twice, but it was undoubtedly an improved night for Tennessee’s quarterback room.
Maurer would end the night going 14-for-28 with 259 yards and two touchdowns, while also sparking an offense that was in desperate need of just that.
Pruitt was non comital postgame on whether Maurer would be the starter going forward, but in a season in which many of Tennessee’s goals are already unreachable in early October there’s no reason not to hand the ball over to the freshman from Ocala.
Things should only get easier for Maurer when he’s not facing one of the nation’s best defenses and he gains more experience.
Tennessee enters its last seven games needing to win five to become bowl eligible. That seems unlikely at this point, but there are winnable games left on the schedule for Tennessee and Brian Maurer gives the Vols the best opportunity to win going forward.
Like all freshmen, he’ll take his lumps but there’s no point in not letting him take the reins and see what he can do with it.
Neyland Stadium may have seen Tennessee take another disappointing loss Saturday night, but it also saw the start of the Brian Maurer era in Knoxville. It was a start that provided plenty of positives.