The Tennessee football team may be turning the corner over halfway through Jeremy Pruitt’s second season.
The Vols have won two of their last three with their most recent triumph coming in a complete 41-21 rout of South Carolina on Saturday.
In the win, Tennessee was able to move the ball on offense despite having to play two quarterbacks in the absence of starter Brian Maurer, while the defense gave the Gamecocks little to no breathing room.
As expected, the grades reflect the Vols’ big performance:
When senior wide receiver Jauan Jennings took the first snap at quarterback for Tennessee, it almost looked like offensive Jim Chaney was going to have no answer to with Maurer out.
A dual effort from redshirt junior Jarrett Guarantano and redshirt freshman JT Shrout quickly changed that early perception.
Both quarterbacks combined for over 300 yards passing and three touchdowns, but their most telling stat was the zero turnovers.
Not every pass was perfect, but the signal callers were able to get the ball to Tennessee’s most explosive playmakers, which made an easy recipe for success for the Vols going forward.
Having your quarterbacks play turnover-free football helps, too.
After a strong showing against Alabama, Tennessee’s running backs had a quiet game against South Carolina.
Junior Ty Chandler led the team in rushing with 80 yards, while Jennings ate up 18 yards out of the wildcat formation.
Most of the Vols’ offensive success came through the air, so the ground game didn’t need to have their best game in this one.
Coming into the season, there was no doubt which unit on Tennessee’s team was the most talented.
It may have taken eight games for both of the Vols’ biggest wide receivers-seniors Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway to simultaneously have their best game, but when they clicked, the duo was unstoppable.
Jennings hauled in seven balls for 174 yards and two touchdowns while Callaway had three for more than 100 yards and a score.
As aforementioned, the passes weren’t always on time, but both receivers-especially Jennings-were able to make adjustments that lead to big gains for the offense.
Josh Palmer racked up 55 yards, including a back-shoulder catch on the sideline on third-and-long in the second quarter to move the chains.
Pruitt has said it himself almost all season about the growth and improvement along the offensive line, and it’s hard to ignore.
One of the reasons Tennessee’s quarterbacks and receivers had so much success was the fact that they were given time to release the ball.
The performance also came against one of the SEC’s best defensive lines in South Carolina.Coming into the game, Gamecocks’ defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw and linebacker DJ Wonnum were top-five in the league in sacks. Against Tennessee, neither recorded a sack.
Senior linebacker Daniel Biltuli was in on 15 total tackles (11 solo), as well as a tackle for loss, while fellow senior Darrell Taylor notched two tackles for loss, two pass-breakups and two sacks.
South Carolina was able to move the ball in the first half, especially on the ground. However, Tennessee’s defense shut them down in the second half behind the performances of Taylor and Bituli at linebacker.
Like Jennings and Callaway on offense, anytime the Vols can get performances like that out of Bituli and Taylor at the same time, it’s hard for most offense to sustain drives.
Junior linebacker Deandre Johnson also had a sack and a pass breakup. True freshman Henry To’o To’o was third on the team in tackles with eight.
South Carolina quarterback Ryan Hilinski hit receiver Shi Smith on a slant route for a 75-yard touchdown on the very first play of the game.
The Gamecocks made some plays downfield after that, including Bryan Edwards acrobatic one-handed grab just before halftime, but for the most part, Tennessee’s secondary didn’t let the first play from scrimmage phase them too much.
Hilinski threw for 319 yards, much of it going to Smith who had 156 yards receiving, but Smith’s early score was the only one through the air that the Vols gave up all day.
Continuing what has been a successful senior campaign, defensive back Nigel Warrior was second on the team in tackles with ten.
After rushing for nearly 200 yards against Florida the week before, South Carolina’s run game accounted for just 103 total yards.
Tavien Feaster lead the team with 81 of those along with a touchdown. Despite giving up two scores from Feaster and Mon Denson, the Vols’ defensive front settled in and limited the damage in the second half, making way for Taylor to wreak havoc in the Gamecocks’ backfield.
It was a big day for Tennessee’s special teams, who were responsible for two touchdowns in a single game for the first time since the 2015 Kentucky game.
Trailing 7-3 in the second quarter, Callaway returned a South Carolina punt 65 yards for a go-ahead touchdown to make it 10-7.
It was Callaway’s third punt return for a touchdown in his career, and his first in an SEC game. Leading 34-21 in the fourth quarter, Bituli put the game away for good with a blocked punt that he also recovered in the endzone to put the Vols up 41-21.
Kicker Brent Cimaglia had a rare missed field goal from 39-yards out in the third quarter, but recovered with two made field goals from 46-yards and 31-yards in the win.
Enough can’t be said about the job Jeremy Pruitt and the Tennessee coaching staff have done.
The Vols have looked like a different team in almost every game they’ve played in since that embarrassing loss to Georgia State to open the season.
Tennessee showed fight at No. 1 Alabama. Despite that emotional loss, recovered to beat South Carolina convincingly.
Areas where the Vols struggled in the early part of the season are showing marked improvement and contributing to their success. That goes back to coaching.
It can’t be overstated how big of a win this was for Tennessee.
The Vols can now look at the possibility of a bowl game as a realistic outcome, especially with a back-ended schedule full of winnable games against UAB, at Kentucky, at Missouri and against Vanderbilt.
They clearly came out Saturday with that importance in mind and didn’t let the bad finish against Alabama the week before affect them.
Every position on the field contributed, and if that keeps up, the Vols could very well finish the regular season on a five-game win streak.