Tennessee improved to 4-5 Saturday as the Vols jumped ahead of UAB early and didn’t look back cruising to a 30-7 homecoming win.
Tennessee got strong play from its defense as the Vols’ shuffled quarterbacks for the sixth straight game.
Here are four takeaways.
Bryce Thompson’s big night
Tennessee looked like it might have to play the 2019 season without freshman All-American Bryce Thompson before the season.
Thompson returned from suspension against Florida and the South Carolina native’s play has improved each week culminating with a big night in Tennessee’s homecoming win.
Thompson’s strong day got started early as the sophomore intercepted Tyler Johnston III on the first play of the game, returning it to the Blazer’s 19-yard line.
“It was perfect play calling,” Thompson said. “I was in the flats, my man was running vertical to the safety, so I went to help out my linebacker over the top. The quarterback threw it right to me.”
It would be his first of three first half interceptions on the night for Thompson.
All three of them gave Tennessee the ball in the Blazer’s territory and the Vols scored a combined 13 points off the turnovers.
Thompson had solid play against the run as well recording three tackles.
“Bryce is everything,” freshman linebacker Henry To’o to’o said. “He’s elusive, he knows what the receiver is going to run. He studies his film and he’s a dog. Bryce is a dog.”
Thompson’s three interceptions were a big part of the Vols’ defense’s big night but it was hardly the only thing the Vols did well.
The Blazer’s added a late game touchdown against the Vols’ reserves, but Tennessee’s defense dominated on the day.
UAB mustered just 237 yards of total offense with 66 yards coming on its late touchdown drive.
The Blazers just crossed midfield once in the first three quarters of the contest as Tennessee’s defense continues to play its best football of the season.
“We’ve made huge strides,” To’o to’o said. “Coming together as one like I said before and really knowing what we’re supposed to do on the field. That’s kind of the big thing.”
Tennessee forced four turnovers in total on the night as the Vols’ defense helped spark a struggling offense.
Jeremy Pruitt said both Brian Maurer and Jarrett Guarantano would be available to play against the Blazers after suffering injuries the past two games.
Brian Maurer wouldn’t see action, but Guarantano would come in to relieve starter J.T. Shrout after the games first drive.
“We worked Brian to be ready to play,” Pruitt said. “With three quarterbacks you know it was hard to get Brian as many reps as he probably needed to be ready, so we elected to go with the other guys today.”
Shrout would return for the first drive of the second half and then in the fourth quarter as Tennessee had the game in hand. The redshirt-freshman finished the day 3-for-6 passing with 34 passing yards and 10 rushing yards.
Guarantano’s day was a mixed bag as the Vols’ banged up offensive line struggled to give him much protection.
Guarantano would finish the day 13-for-21 with 147 yards, a touchdown and an endzone interception at the end of the first half.
Odds and Ins
Red zone offense hasn’t been a strength for Tennessee this season and that continued Saturday.
The Vols produced 24 points from on five red zone trips, but the Vols left points on the board with a red zone interception and spoiled a short field by not gaining a first down on two field goal drives.
“You never take points off the board and that’s what we did there,” Pruitt said. “We can’t make those mistakes moving forward.”
Eric Gray saw his name called more tonight than he has since the UAB game as offensive coordinator Jim Chaney got the talented freshman running back more touches.
Gray ended the game with nine touches and his first career touchdown as Guarantano found Gray on the wheel route for a 13-yard score in the third quarter.
Gray, who holds the TSSAA career touchdown record, picked up his first collegiate touchdown on the play.
“It felt great,” Gray said. “It felt long overdue for me. It felt great to finally get in there. First of many. I just want to give all the glory to God.”
Tennessee’s special teams continued its strong play on the season Saturday both in the kicking and punting game.
Brent Cimaglia’s All-SEC campaign continued Saturday inside Neyland Stadium as the junior went three-for-three on field goals including a 53-yarder, his new career high.
Tennessee made the switch from Joe Doyle to Paxton Brooks at punter during the Alabama game, and Brooks had his best performance of the season against UAB. The sophomore averaged 44 yards per punt while twice pinning UAB inside its own 20.