Tennessee dropped its regular season finale Saturday, falling to No. 5 Texas A&M, 34-13. The win moves the Aggies to 8-1 and improves their college football playoff chances. Tennessee falls to 3-7 in the SEC only schedule.
With Tennessee defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley unable to coach due to COVID-19, Texas A&M torched the Vols for 497 yards and 34 points.
Here are three takeaways.
Vols juggle quarterbacks
Tennessee has made a clean break at quarterback from senior Jarrett Guarantano, who went through senior day festivities Saturday and entered the transfer portal after the game. However, the Vols aren’t certain on who to hand the reins to, playing both J.T. Shrout and Harrison Bailey for the third straight week.
Both Shrout and Bailey played well in the first half, combining to go seven-for-seven for 139 yards while leading a pair of touchdown drives, each ending in 30 plus yard touchdown passes.
As has been the case the entire season, consistency plagued Tennessee’s quarterbacks and the Vols offense as they failed to convert when given opportunities to help Tennessee spring the upset.
Tennessee’s offense was given two prime opportunities in the third quarter to cut Texas A&M’s lead to one possession.
Aided by an inaccurate Kellen Mond pass on third down, Tennessee’s defense forced the Aggies to punt to open the second half. Tennessee’s offense would have the ball trailing 24-13 but couldn’t capitalize, gaining just one first down.
Tennessee’s offense was lucky enough to get the ball back with the same score as Alontae Taylor intercepted Mond in the end zone, returning it to the Vols’ 45-yard line.
With a prime chance to put itself in a position to potentially pull off the upset, Tennessee went backwards with a pair of false starts from senior skill position players: Josh Palmer and Ty Chandler. Shrout, who played on both possessions, made a great play to buy time and find Palmer for what would've been a first down. However, the senior receiver dropped the pass forcing Tennessee to punt.
Tennessee wouldn’t get that opportunity again as the Aggies pushed their lead to three possessions on the following drive.
Shrout ended the game six-of-14 passing for 104 yards, a touchdown and an interception on a Hail Mary. Bailey ended six-of-six for 85 yards, adding a touchdown and a fumble. Bailey’s biggest problem Saturday was holding onto the ball too long, something that hadn’t plagued him previously.
“Harrison does a lot of really good things,” head coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “One thing that he has to get past is he gets stuck sometimes in the throw game. Whether it’s a progression read or a coverage read there's a few times, I think everyone sees it, he holds the ball a little bit. Just one of those things he has to get passed and the more reps he gets the better he’ll be at it.”
Aggies dominate the line of scrimmage
Tennessee’s run game has been the strength of a bad offense all season, but Saturday with Eric Gray and a couple of offensive linemen out, Tennessee’s running game faltered totaling only 24 yards. The performance was its second worst of the season behind the Georgia game.
Gray was "unavailable" according to Pruitt though the reason wasn't given.
Tennessee’s pass blocking struggles this season continued against the Aggies as Texas A&M’s defensive line recorded three sacks, though some could be blamed on Bailey holding the ball too long.
Things didn’t go much better for Tennessee’s defensive front who was dominated throughout the game by Texas A&M’s offensive line, known as the “maroon goons.” Texas A&M’s running attack didn’t break many long runs, but continuously churned out yards and kept the Aggies ahead of the sticks.
Behind the three headed rushing attack of Mond, Isaiah Spiller and Ainias Smith the Aggies ran for 216 yards on 47 carries. Spiller led the way for the group with 89 yards as all three tallied over 55 yards.
"They were able to run the football. We were not," Pruitt said.
Texas A&M’s offensive line successfully held off Tennessee’s pass rush as well, allowing no sacks and very little pressure on Mond throughout the game.
Tennessee can’t get Texas A&M off the field
I wrote in my keys and predictions article previewing the matchup that Tennessee’s defense had to play well on third down due to the Aggies strong offensive line and the likely lack of negative plays.
Tennessee’s defense was far from good on the down as the Aggies converted 10-of-14 attempts.
“We’re one-for-six on third down, they're 10-for-16,” Pruitt said. “Anytime you can extend drives, just the first third down of the game its third-and-10 we jump offside. It’s third-and-five they convert it. Another time in the game they bolt the back, we don’t peel the back and they get a third down.”
Of Tennessee’s four stops on third down, one was a bounced pass by Kellen Mond to an open receiver and another was a run up the middle on third-and-goal at the 10-yard line.
Texas A&M was able to get the ball to its running backs out of the backfield effectively with four of its 10 third down conversions coming on passes to backs.
“There was a couple of times that our linebacker had the back out of the backfield,” Pruitt said. “In our defense we have mechanisms that can get you out of issues so to speak. So if we’re bringing a pressure and a linebacker has a back and the back is fixing to get out we have blitz calls and we have spear calls to execute it. Now that sounds good sitting up here, but it’s something with the more experience you get you’re able to apply these things and we didn’t do that a couple times.”
The dominant third down performance led to a plethora of long scoring drives for Texas A&M including four of 10 plays or more. In total, the Aggies had seven drives of eight plays or more.
The long drives combined with Tennessee’s lack of a running game led to lopsided time of possession with Texas A&M possessing the ball for 44:09 of the game’s 60 minutes.