Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt approached the podium at the Hand Digital Studio to address the media less than 48 hours removed from the Vols 43-14 loss to No. 3 Georgia.
There was a hint of optimism in Pruitt’s voice despite the lopsided loss, and considering where Tennessee has been through their first five games of the 2019 season, he had reason to be.
The final result at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night was about what everyone expected, but Tennessee’s performance was a bit of a surprise.
Behind true freshman quarterback Brian Maurer, Tennessee, at least for a half, hung in with the heavily favored Bulldogs. The Vols even lead at one point in the second quarter, 14-10, with the offense moving the ball down field.
There were issues, many of the same issues that have persisted in Tennessee’s 1-4 start. Pruitt talked about both the positives and negatives, as well as previewed Mississippi State at his weekly press conference.
Here are the takeaways:
The good, the bad and the fixable
Before the Vols turn their attention to the Bulldogs from Starkville, Pruitt opened up the press conference in the usual way, recapping the Bulldogs from Athens one final time.
The reaction was overall positive for Pruitt, despite losing by more than three scores. Tennessee came into the game as more than 24-point underdogs but played much better than expected on offense.
“When we reviewed the game from Saturday there was a lot of positives to take out of the game on both sides of the ball,” Pruitt said. “There were a lot of things that we could learn as a football team to continue to grow and improve.”
The good was clearly Maurer and his ability to throw the ball. In his previous appearances against Chattanooga and Florida, the freshman used his legs in the pocket, but versus Georgia he was able to find the Vols’ biggest wide receiving threats in Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings.
The bad was the Tennessee defense’s inability to create pass rush and slow down quarterback Jake Fromm, who sat in the pocket and found open receivers to sustain drives.
Georgia’s running back also rattled off big gains after almost immediate contact at the line of scrimmage, something Pruitt wants to see cleaned up before playing Mississippi State.
“Defensively, way too many yards after contact,” Pruitt said. “Too many loose plays. We’ve got to be able to generate pass rush. We’ve got to find a way to create negative plays.”
Maurer assessment, status for Saturday
Maurer made his first start against Georgia after limited action earlier in the season. In the first half, he tossed for two touchdowns and more than 200 yards, a promising start in the early going of his Tennessee career.
Pruitt was pleased with what he saw overall but thought Maurer’s youth showed up in the second half, leading to some mistakes that Georgia took advantage of.
“I thought (Maurer) had really good energy,” Pruitt said. “He did some nice things, especially early on. He had some really nice throws and got the ball out of his hand. But he also made some mistakes, too. He probably should have handed the ball off a couple of times, and he made incorrect reads there.”
The outing was obviously good enough for Maurer to be the assumed starter for the Mississippi State game, but Pruitt said on Monday that his performance in practice will determine his status for Saturday.
“We’re going to see how this week goes,” Pruitt said. “I think he would really have to have a bad week of practice not to, but we’ll see how this week goes.”
Preparing for Mississippi State’s two QBs
Tennessee isn’t the only team in the SEC that had high hopes before the season began only to see them dashed five weeks in.
Mississippi State was looking to take a step forward in head coach Joe Moorehead’s second season at the helm.
The Bulldogs won eight games in 2018 but under-performed in their five losses. They come to Knoxville on Saturday at 3-2 overall, coming off a 56-23 loss to Auburn two weeks ago. They’ll also be coming off of a bye week before taking on the Vols.
Moorehead was the offensive coordinator at Penn State before being hired by Mississippi State more than a year ago.
In the offseason, he added former Nittany Lion quarterback Tommy Stevens who was familiar with his system.
While the Bulldogs’ offense has struggled, they often split time between Stevens and quarterback Garrett Shrader. Pruitt and the Tennessee defense will have to prepare for both.
“That’s what I was looking at this morning,” Pruitt said. “What’s the difference between (Stevens) and (Shrader) in the game? I don’t see a whole lot. Shrader can throw the football. If you go back and look, (Stevens) is running the ball, too. I think that’s who they are.”