Eric Gray vs. Missouri 3

Tennessee running back Eric Gray (3) runs into the end zone for a touchdown during a game between Tennessee and Missouri at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020.

Tennessee started fast and didn’t look back Saturday as they improved to 2-0, beating Missouri 35-12. 

The Vols were able to dominate on the ground and showed growth with their third down offense.

Here are three takeaways.

Tennessee starts fast 

Tennessee started slow a week ago in its season opener against South Carolina. That wasn’t the case Saturday, as the Vols dominated Missouri in the first quarter and change.

Tennessee received the opening kickoff and went straight to work, marching 75 yards on 14 plays as Ty Chandler scored the game’s first touchdown from three yards out. The drive spanned 4:59 and was Tennessee’s first opening drive touchdown since last season’s win over UT-Chattanooga.

The Vols’ defense was great in the opening quarter, allowing just one first down. 

Tennessee’s offense marched down the field on its second drive but couldn’t convert as Brent Cimaglia missed a 39-yard field goal.

The first quarter would end before Tennessee’s third drive ended but the Vols offense pounded the ball down the field and finished it off with an Eric Gray 20-yard touchdown run 14 seconds into the second half.

“It was huge,” linebacker Henry To’o To’o said of the Vols’ first quarter. “We try to keep momentum going. We try to keep our foot on the gas, and we try to not let up. … It was huge for us to be able to keep that going.

In total, Tennessee outgained the Tigers’ 167-13 in the first quarter with Missouri starting quarterback Shawn Robinson failing to complete a pass.

Vols establish run

Tennessee’s offensive line was expected to be the strength of its offense this season. That was made even more prevalent this week when Georgia transfer Cade Mays became eligible.

Tennessee leaned on that group Saturday as the Vols leaned on its running game to get past Missouri. 

The Vols played nine offensive linemen with Wanya Morris, Trey Smith, Brandon Kennedy, Jerome Carvin and Cade Mays earning the start. Darnell Wright and Javontez Spraggins earned playing time off the bench, and Cooper Mays and Riley Locklear played in Tennessee’s jumbo, seven offensive linemen, formation.

Tennessee used the formation frequently and successfully against the Tigers.

“It’s like running behind a Mack truck,” Gray said of the jumbo set. “You get the ball and everything’s wide open. … It feels great to be able to get those easy yards like that.”

It was a strong day for both Ty Chandler and Eric Gray who each tallied over 85 yards. Gray rushed for 105 yards on 16 carries, recording a rushing and receiving touchdown. Chandler turned in 90 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown.

“We ran the ball 51 times,” head coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “The first part of being good in the run game is, you have to do it. You have to say you’re going to establish the run game, and we did that today.”

The Vols’ offense ran for a total of four touchdowns Saturday and was four-for-four on fourth and a yard or less Saturday.

Improvement on conversion downs, red zone 

Tennessee’s third down offense was a major reason for concern in its opener against South Carolina. 

Tennessee went just 1-of-13 on third downs in Columbia but turned the tide against Missouri, converting 6-of-13 third downs. On top of that, the Vols were aggressive on fourth down, converting four fourth-and-shorts, all on quarterback sneaks from Guarantano.

The Vols’ offense stayed ahead of the sticks all night, with their average third down distance being six yards. The Vols’ had just three third downs over eight yards and had four third downs two yards or shorter.

“We were 6-of-13 so that’s five more than we had last week,” Pruitt said. “We got to continue to work hard to be a good third down team on both sides of the ball. A lot of it has to do with first and second down. It’s a lot easier to convert third-and-six inches than third-and-16.”

Tennessee’s offense was also excellent in the red zone, something they struggled mightily with a year ago. The Vols found the red zone four times Saturday, scoring a touchdown each time.

“I think that was our emphasis going into this year,” quarterback Jarrett Guarantano said. “Red zone we were one of the worst teams going into the season. Myself and coach Chaney had a lot of sit down talks and that was the biggest thing, we wanted to be a lot better in the red zone.”

Up Next

Tennessee will travel to Athens to face No. 4 Georgia. Kickoff from Sanford Stadium will be either noon or 3:30 ET. The broadcast will be on ESPN or CBS.

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