Tennessee vs. ETSU: 10 points

On September 8, 2018, Tennessee defeated ETSU, 59-3, for the first win of the Jeremy Pruitt era. Here are 10 things that stood out.

1.) Lighting strikes twice. It was evident that Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt was not happy with his team’s effort early in Saturday’s game against ETSU. He shouldn’t have been, obviously. Tennessee had three offensive possessions in the first 20 minutes of game time and put just three points on the board. 

When the game was delayed by lightning with 10 minutes remaining in the first half, it would have been nice to have had a live look inside the Vols’ locker room. One can imagine that Pruitt was chewing on his guys pretty heavily, and it showed. Tennessee came out with a new focus and mentality after the delay, scoring four touchdowns in the final 10 minutes of the half to turn a 10-0 lead into a 38-0 lead.

It’s a little concerning that it took a lightning delay and a trip to the locker room for Tennessee to get its heads on straight, but whatever it takes. Last week, the lightning delay helped West Virginia. Today, it helped the Vols.

2.) Know your opponent. I believe in realism, so let’s keep it real: It’s difficult to take much away from the win over ETSU because the game was little more than a scrimmage. This game was never going to be close. I heard Tennessee fans predict a close game all week, and all week I scoffed at those predictions. I saw the Knoxville News Sentinel staff predict a relatively close game, for the most part. (Beat writer Mike Wilson, whose work I like, said the final would be 27-17. I laughed at that one. There was never any way that ETSU was going to score 17 points on Tennessee, there was never any way Tennessee would only score 27 on ETSU, and there was never any way it was only going to be a 10-point margin of victory.) 

ETSU is just that bad. I think it’s important to note that, because UT fans will get carried away with what they think this win proves about their team. Sure enough, listening to the Vol Network’s Final Scoreboard Show, I heard caller after caller boasting about how much UT had improved from Week 1 to Week 2. Again, while I saw some improvements and some things to build on, it’s difficult to take much away from this win — just as it’ll be difficult to take much away from next week’s win over UTEP. 

The Bucs are an FCS team, to start with. It’s tough for the very best FCS teams to compete with the very worst Power 5 FBS teams, but ETSU is not a good FCS team, by any stretch of the imagination. The Bucs are only in their third season since bringing back their football program, they’re 1-14 away from Johnson City in that stretch, and they have yet to have a winning season. They play in the Southern Conference, which is one of the weaker FCS conferences, and they’re picked to finish No. 8 out of nine teams in that conference this season. Last week, the Bucs opened the season by struggling to put away Mars Hill, which is a very weak Division II team that is coming off a 3-7 season in 2017. 

Simply put: Maryville High School could’ve given ETSU a better fight than ETSU gave Tennessee. Even when this game was 10-0 and Tennessee was struggling, there was never any doubt that it would be a 50-point blowout. It was just a matter of time. So let’s not get too carried away until we see how the Vols look against Florida in a couple of weeks (because the competition doesn’t get much better next week when UTEP visits Neyland Stadium).

3.) Atrocious offensive line play. I tweeted at one point in the first quarter that the reactionary extremist side of me would revoke some offensive line scholarships and fire offensive line coach Will Friend.

I was only halfway joking. After an absolutely horrendous start against West Virginia last week, Tennessee’s O-line may have started even worse today. At the end of the first quarter, ETSU had more rushing yards than Tennessee — with zero. The Vols had -1 yard rushing in the first quarter…against a weak FCS team. There’s simply no excuse for that.

As was the case last week, Tennessee got better in pass protection as the game progressed. UT also began opening holes for its running backs, though the line never looked especially good in run blocking, particularly considering the opponent. 

I’m not sure what the answer is for this offensive line, but two things I’m certain of: Jarrett Guarantano will not finish the season without injury, and it’s going to be tough for Tennessee to compete in the SEC without some significant improvements. Florida is going to eat this line’s lunch and steal their girlfriends. 

Fortunately, there’s time to improve. But improvements must be made.

4.) Not quite as sharp. I didn’t think Guarantano looked as sharp as he did against West Virginia last week. Guarantano completed eight of 13 passes for 154 yards, but he had a couple of bad throws. Last week he only had one really bad throw against a better defense. 

The good news is that Keller Chryst came on and completed all three of his passes for 70 yards and a touchdown. Pruitt has said that you must have two quarterbacks, and that’s especially true for Tennessee right now, given the status of its offensive line. It appears the Vols may have two serviceable quarterbacks.

5.) Runningbacks impressive. It’s probably a close race with the wide receivers, but Tennessee’s most talented position group may be its runningbacks. Last week, Tim Jordan impressed with a really nice game against West Virginia. Today, Jeremy Banks came on and did some nice things.

Banks, who is obviously a crowd favorite, finished with 62 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 13 carries. Jordan finished with 65 yards. Madre London finished with 47 yards on eight carries. 

Unfortunately, Tennessee averaged only 4.3 yards per carry, which is inexcusable against ETSU. But a big part of that problem is the offensive line. If the Vols’ offensive line play improves, it’s not hard to imagine UT’s running game becoming a big threat.

6.) Defensive front looked better. Tennessee’s defensive line got much better push this week than last, but — again — it’s hard to read too much into that, because ETSU’s offensive line is so much weaker than the West Virginia offensive line the Vols faced last week.

Still, Tennessee was able to get some really nice pressure on ETSU quarterback Logan March, limiting him to 11 of 26 passing, with a couple of interceptions.

We won’t know much about how this defensive line is progressing until Florida comes to town on September 22, but today seemed to be a nice step in the right direction.

7.) Opportunistic approach. One thing you have to admire about Tennessee’s play against ETSU is the team’s opportunism. There was Marquill Osborne’s blocked punt for a touchdown, Darrin Kirkland Jr.’s pick-six, Bryce Thompson’s interception returned to the three-yard-line to set up another score. 

8.) Strong kicking game. ETSU returned the opening kickoff 18 yards, then settled for touchbacks on every successive kickoff. Brent Cimaglia is looking more and more like the kind of kicker you need in SEC play, with the ability to put kickoffs deep into the end zone. And Tennessee’s kick coverage was good on the long return by ETSU.

Joe Doyle averaged only 43 yards on four punts — that probably needs to improve some, as Pruitt noted after the game. But the kicking game looks like it could wind up being a relatively strong point for Tennessee.

9.) No more fans. Someone in Tennessee’s sports marketing department decided to place paper fans throughout the student section. Good idea, since the heat index inside Neyland Stadium was well into the 90s. Good idea, until the students started launching the fans onto Shields-Watkins Field.

Using the fans as projectiles began when Osborne rumbled into the end zone for a touchdown on the blocked punt, then continued after that. The first warning of a potential penalty against Tennessee came as the fans rained down on ETSU players who were leaving the field for the locker room after lightning was spotted. 

Two times in the second half, Tennessee had the ball on the one-yard-line and the fans were raining down on the playing surface, despite the multiple warnings. By rule, Tennessee could’ve been (and perhaps should’ve been) penalized. 

Someone on Twitter gave me a hard time for criticizing UT students for throwing the fans. I was far from alone, as some hearty boos were being aimed at students from inside the stadium when the fan-throwing continued. I didn’t see it as innocent fun by students who were just being students. Tennessee could’ve been penalized two times with 15-yard penalties from the one-yard-line. That would’ve been unacceptable. 

One thing is for sure: I’m guessing those fans don’t make an encore appearance.

10.) Always coaching. I don’t know if Pruitt is the guy to resurrect Tennessee’s once-proud football program, and I refuse to believe he is until I see concrete evidence. But I admire much of what I see about Pruitt, including his demeanor both after the game and during it.

Last week, Pruitt stepped up and took ownership for the loss, which was quite a refreshing change from Butch Jones. Jones was repeatedly throwing his players and everyone else under the bus, making excuses for everyone to cover himself.

In his postgame interview with Vol Network broadcaster Bob Kesling, Pruitt refused to admit that his team played a “clean game” until he had seen the tape. When Kesling said, “Well, still, just three penalties, you have to be happy about that,” after Pruitt had already said he didn’t want any penalties, Pruitt said, “Well, no, I don’t want to have any penalties.” 

But the thing I like most about Pruitt is how he’s always coaching, without fail. Every time a unit comes off the field, Pruitt is coaching. Jones was usually 20 or 30 yards down the sideline, pacing with his eyes on the ground and talking into his headset. That isn’t the case with Pruitt, who is constantly interacting with his players in one-on-one situations.

Can Pruitt succeed? I don’t know. But you can’t help rooting for him. He’s a football coach. Can he be the CEO and caretaker of a major college program? We’ll see.

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