Tennessee’s game against No. 17 West Virginia on Saturday was decided in the second half, when Mountaineers quarterback Will Grier went off on the Vols by tossing four touchdowns to turn a 13-7 lead into a 40-14 blowout.
But a key moment in the game didn’t come in the second half at all. It came late in the first half, when Tennessee had the ball.
Let me preface this by saying that I think Tyson Helton is going to be a very good offensive coordinator for Tennessee. One of my preseason anticipations was seeing what Jarrett Guarantano looks like after spending the offseason working with Helton. At first glance, the results were very positive. I think Guarantano is poised to have a good year. And when Tennessee engineered a 17-play touchdown drive earlier in the second quarter that chewed more than seven minutes off the clock, Helton was a mastermind, mixing the plays beautifully. All in all, I think he called a good game.
But there was a sequence late in the second quarter that was a real head-scratcher.
Tennessee was at West Virginia’s 40-yard-line with around three minutes to play, trailing 10-7. The Vols had just marched the length of the field to score, then their defense had gotten a stop, and UT had all the momentum. Once the offense got the ball back, Guarantano completed a seven-yard pass to Marquez Callaway, Tim Jordan broke off a 17-yard run, and Josh Palmer went seven yards on a reverse, and the Vols were in Mountaineer territory. It looked like a field goal to tie the game at the half was a worst-case scenario.
But the drive stalled. First, the Vols handed the ball off to Madre London, who was stopped for a one-yard loss at the 41-yard-line, and second-and-three became third-and-four. Then, Guarantano checked in to another handoff to London (the play was called from the sideline), who was stuffed at the line of scrimmage by West Virginia’s run blitz. It was fourth-and-four, and UT had to punt.
There was a host of interesting factors at play. One, Tennessee’s run game was atrocious all day, aside from the work of Jordan. The Vols averaged 4.1 yards per carry against a suspect Mountaineer defense — not good, but even worse when you consider that they averaged 2.2 yards per carry without Jordan’s efforts. Two, London — a graduate transfer from Michigan State — is, at best, the third-best running back on Tennessee’s roster. Three, both runs were to the right side of the line. Tennessee seemed to favor running right all day, even though the right side of the line was struggling mightily. Perhaps the Vols felt that they could catch the Mountaineers sleeping by going to the opposite side of their All-SEC left tackle, Trey Smith, but it clearly wasn’t working.
It has been suggested that perhaps UT was just trying to get to the half, but that doesn’t make sense. The Vols were on West Virginia’s 40-yard-line and moving the ball well, with still three minutes remaining. And if you’re simply trying to get to the half, you don’t waste a reverse call on the previous play.
The sequence was compounded on the punt that followed. Rather than running the play clock down and using a time out, the Vols snapped the ball with 10 seconds left on the play clock. Head coach Jeremy Pruitt has since admitted that was a mistake on his part. Joe Doyle, the Vols’ punter, did his job, pinning West Virginia at the 10-yard-line. But tight end Austin Pope, in the game on punt coverage, picked up a personal foul penalty after tangling with a Mountaineer player after the play was over, which gave WVU the ball at the 25-yard-line with 1:52 remaining. That was enough time for Grier to move his team into field goal range, and the halftime score was 13-7.
If Tennessee had been able to finish its drive with a touchdown, which is certainly not ill-conceivable, considering how well Guarantano was picking apart the Mountaineers’ weak secondary in the second quarter, the Vols would have been ahead 14-10 at halftime, and the narrative would have been different. Would West Virginia have won the game? Absolutely. Tennessee didn’t have an answer for Grier. But with a 14-10 halftime lead, you can withstand West Virginia’s easy score to start the third quarter, and you know you’re still only a play away from taking the lead back. Instead, by the time the Vols’ offense got the ball back in the third quarter after those ill-fated second- and third-down play calls, the score was 19-7, and you could sense the body language had changed. The game was never the same after that.
The game ended in a 40-14 blowout, and it really was that lopsided when you consider how well West Virginia’s offense executed in the second half and how poorly Tennessee executed in just about every phase of the game. But it could’ve been much, much closer.
It wasn’t just the late second quarter sequence that haunts Tennessee. The Vols were inside the Mountaineer five-yard-line in the second half and couldn’t punch it in, and West Virginia was prepared to settle for a field goal late in the game before an offsides penalty gave the Mountaineers a first down and a quick touchdown.
That 40-14 score could just as easily have been 36-21. Or, if not for the late second quarter sequence, it could have wound up being 33-28. A loss is always a loss, there are no moral victories, but how much different would UT fans have felt this week if the final score had been either of the latter?
It’s not really fair to say that the final score would’ve been absolute if a couple of plays earlier in the ballgame had been flipped, because those flipped plays would have changed the entire course of the game after that, including each team’s strategy. But it would’ve been interesting to see how things turned out if Tennessee hadn’t gone confusingly conservative at the end of the second quarter.