COLUMBIA, Mo.- On a cold night at Faurot Field in Columbia on Nov. 11, 2017, the Tennessee administration had reached their tipping point.
The Tennessee football team under head coach Butch Jones had fallen to the Missouri Tigers, 50-17 on their way to the worst finish in program history. The following day, Jones was fired.
Just over two years later on the same field, on a similarly cold night, Jones’ replacement, Jeremy Pruitt, lead the Vols to a 24-20 win against the Tigers, punching their ticket to a bowl game for the first time in three seasons.
The rebuild that Pruitt started more than a month after that 50-17 loss at Missouri is nowhere near complete, but Tennessee’s bowl berth-clinching win is a sign that it is well on it’s way in Pruitt’s second season.
For Pruitt, the road from 1-4 to 6-5 started with leadership, which once again prevailed late in a close game against Missouri, just as it did at Kentucky two weeks before.
“I’m just really proud of the leadership,” Pruitt said. “The seniors, these guys have been through a lot. You know this season didn’t start off the way we anticipated, but with their leadership, it has helped this team grow. This is why you get into coaching, to watch a team become a team.”
The moment Tennessee officially started becoming a team that could not only play for each other, but win games started at their lowest point: a 34-3 loss to Florida back on Sept. 21 in Gainesville.
Having already lost to Georgia State and BYU in the first two weeks of the season, the loss to the Gators dropped the Vols to 1-4 overall, with a tough slate still in front of them.
Outside of the program, the perception was, at the time, crystal clear. There was no way this Tennessee team could reach a bowl game.
Inside of the program, where it mattered, there was hope.
That hope started with a team meeting, headed up by Pruitt. He told his team that they were going to make a bowl game. On Saturday night, they did just that.
“That whole meeting was ‘if you’re here, are you really going to be here for us?” Senior defensive back Nigel Warrior recalled. ”We really turned it around. We came together, we became one. They’re sending me out with a bowl.”
Getting that sixth win wasn’t easy, just like getting to wins No. 2 and 5 wasn’t. But the Vols have shown that being in those types of gritty battles is where they thrive. Such was the case against a Missouri team that they fell behind early against.
After going three-and-out on their opening drive of the game, a struggling Tigers offense that had scored a total of six points in their last two SEC games moved the ball downfield on Tennessee’s defense quickly.
A Tucker McCann 30-yard field goal put Missouri up early, 3-0.
The Vols offense tried answering, driving inside the Tigers’ 30-yard line before stalling. Tennessee kicker Brent Cimaglia had a chance to tie the game, but his 34-yard kick was blocked.
The adversity struck early, and while the score didn’t necessarily reflect, Tennessee found themselves in the same situation they were in at Kentucky.
Their answer finally came in the second quarter, putting together a drive and hitting pay dirt in the form of a true freshman Quavaris Crouch touchdown run-the first of his career.
“We practice, we prepare for it all through the week,” Crouch said after the game. “Once you practice some, the nervousness goes away. You just keep repping and repping and repping until (scoring) seems normal.”
The Vols’ lead was short-lived as Missouri quarterback Kelly Bryant found Tyler Badie for the score to pull ahead 10-7. The touchdown was the Tigers’ first in the first half since a 21-14 loss to Vanderbilt on Oct. 19.
Tennessee was able to take a 17-10 lead into the half thanks to a senior wide receiver Jauan Jennings touchdown and Cimaglia field goal as time expired.
In usual form, Jennings’ touchdown involved shedding tacklers before bowling into the endzone.
He, along with fellow senior Marquez Callaway and junior Josh Palmer hauled more than 100 receiving yards a piece-the first time a trio of Tennessee’s receivers had done that in a single game in program history.
“In practice we go hard every time,” Palmer said. “We go after each other in practice and whenever we see one of us make plays, we feed off each other and it’s basically a competition between ourselves.”
In the second half, after Missouri had pulled off a double pass from Micah Wilson to a wide open Badie in the endzone to tie the game at 17-17, the Vols found themselves in all-too familiar territory.
That’s when the big-time play ability between that trio of receivers, Callaway, Palmer and Jennings and redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano came through.
“If you look at the game, we made a lot of mistakes,” Pruitt said. “It seems like, as a coaches, you think of all of the mistakes that you made, but there was a lot of good in that game.”
The good was the Tennessee offense’s impressed 9-of-16 third down stat, many of those included Guarnatano passes down field in third-and-long situations. It also included Guarantano career-high 415 passing yards.
“You look at Jarrett Guarantano, and I don’t know how many yards he threw for, but it was over 400 yards,” Pruitt said. “He didn’t have a really clean pocket for a lot of the game but he got the ball out of his hand, made some good throws. Let me tell you, the (receivers) made some tough catches.”
Guarantano all but put the game away on one of those throws, hit Callaway just before the end of the third quarter for a 17-yard touchdown to break the tie, 24-17.
Following a Tim Jordan fumble as the Vols were deep in Missouri territory midway through the fourth quarter, the Tigers were given another chance to tie the game, but were held to a field goal to pull within four, 24-20.
Holding Missouri to a field goal proved to be the biggest stand of the night by Tennessee’s defense, as Guarantano connected on three-straight third downs to finish off the clock.
“I’m excited for our players,” Pruitt said. “When we finished that Florida game we said ‘hey, we’re going to make a bowl.’ Our guys backed up what they said they were going to do. I think it’s great for our program. I’m excited that our season’s extended.”