KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Butch Jones is long gone.
But Tennessee’s on-field results Saturday were about the same as they’ve been since Georgia humiliated the Vols 41-0 on Sept. 30.
Nationally ranked LSU’s defense effectively stymied Tennessee’s offense most of the game and the Tigers got two rushing touchdowns in a 30-10 SEC victory before an announced crowd of 96,888 at Neyland Stadium.
Clearly, not all the sold tickets were used.
When the game ended barely 5,000 people were in the mammoth stadium that seats 102,455. Most of the third quarter was played in near-monsoon conditions. The field was barely visible from the towering press box. Even seeing the action from the sideline was difficult for players and coaches because of the wind-blown torrents of rain mixed with lightning.
“I don’t ever remember playing a game like that,” Tennessee senior linebacker Colton Jumper said. “It was like a monsoon out there, but (LSU) was playing in it too.”
Before the second half began, many of the lights went out and visibility on the field was drastically diminished.
“(Rain) was literally coming down so hard I couldn’t see some of the guys on the field,” said Brady Hoke, the Vols’ interim coach for the season’s final two games. It was coming right into you. So, I’m sure they had a big problem with it.”
Although the Vols (4-7, 0-7) have a 20-10 edge in the series, the Tigers have won seven of the last nine meetings, including five in a row. Tennessee last beat LSU in 2005 at Baton Rouge in a 30-27 overtime contest.
So, Saturday’s game came less than a week after Jones was fired by John Currie, the UT athletic director, Hoke was named to finish out the season as interim coach.
“I would like to give coach Hoke and his staff credit,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. “I thought they had those guys ready to play. I’m sure it was a tough week for them, but the team came out and fought hard. We were expecting a battle.”
Junior defensive lineman Kyle Phillips had a positive reaction to Hoke’s first week in his new role.
“I think we all bought into what he’s been preaching to us about, playing for our seniors and how we had two more opportunities,” Phillips said. “I think that was really important because we really care about each other as a team. These seniors have been here four or five years and we want to end the season on a good note.”
The only note – sour or sweet – comes next Saturday when bitter rival Vanderbilt invades Neyland Stadium for the season-ending game for both teams.
Tennessee has lost six of its last seven games and six straight in conference play and the Commodores come into the finale with records matching the Vols.
The Vols have to beat Vandy to avoid the school’s first winless SEC season since the league was founded in 1933. Kickoff is scheduled for 4 p.m. and the game will be televised on the SEC Network.
The Commodores will be coming off a 45-17 loss to Missouri. The Tigers belted Tennessee, 50-17, a week ago and proved to be the final straw in Jones’ firing.
The Vols are hopeful and averting an infamous record no football college would want on its historical factsheet. Tennessee has never lost eight games in a season in 121 years of football.
Saturday's loss put a nail in the Vols' hopes of becoming bowl eligible.
Tennessee’s defense, once again carrying the burden of the team’s low-scoring offensive unit, played admirably. It was special team’s misfires by Marquez Callaway, two botched failures to convert fourth-down gambles and Missouri having short-field scoring chances that led to Saturday’s defeat.
LSU (8-3, 5-2) scored 17 points on drives that started at the Vols’ 15, 19 and 21. The Tigers also proved they could grind out longer scoring drives of 50 and 61 yards.
“Field position is huge,” Hoke said. “It was big tonight and it will be huge next Saturday.”
Early on Callaway fumbled a punt and LSU’s Connor Culp capitalized with a 30-yard field goal. The drive was four plays, covering 2 yards in 2 minutes and 8 seconds.
Callaway’s muffed punt the Tigers got a 19-yard touchdown run by Darrel Williams, who added a 6-yard TD run in the third quarter.
“Callaway is, number one, one of the best kids you could ever coach,” Hoke said. “Number two, he is the guy that works harder than anyone else at his craft. I felt bad for him, but he bounced back and that was the thing that was important.”
Callaway caught a 46-yard touchdown pass from Jarrett Guarantano in the second quarter that cut LSU’s lead to 17-10. He wound up with two catches for 72 yards and was the team’s leading receiver. Callaway also left the game twice due to injuries.
“The two turnovers that Tennessee had on punt return was probably the difference in the game,” Orgeron said.
Guarantano wasn’t expected to start the game because of injury. Freshman Will McBride, who relieved Guarantano in the Southern Miss game, started and played the entire game at Missouri. An injury kept under wraps all week kept McBride from playing against LSU.
The first indication something was amiss came when McBride wasn’t dressed for pregame warmups.
“He wasn’t ready yet protocol-wise,” Hoke said.
Guarantano, hampered by a bum ankle, went 13 for 23 for 239 yards and the TD pass to Callaway and rushed six times for minus 9 yards. The Vols’ anemic ground game produced a meager 38 yards on 34 carries, a paltry 1.1-yard average. The Vols had 287 total yards.
The Vols’ defense gave up 281 yards of offense, and to no one’s surprise 200 came on the ground. Derris Guice gained 97 yards on 24 carries. Williams had 68 on seven tries, but the Tigers’ offense managed only 81 passing yards.
LSU came in averaging 406.3 yards per game, but the Vols’ gutting defense held the Tigers 119 yards below that mark. LSU was almost right on target with the rushing attack, gaining 200 on a 207.9 average.
Guice and Williams had differing opinions about whether the horrible third-quarter weather conditions were a factor.
“As a running back,” Williams said, “that is our type weather. That’s what we live for.”
Guice’s viewpoint was polar opposite to Williams.
“The weather conditions changed the whole game plan,” he said. “Both teams had to run the ball more. Tennessee, the way they were playing, they had about eight or nine in the box every time and safeties were about 5 yards deep. You just had to grind it out and get what you can.”
The Vols could point to a decimated offensive line as a big part of their ground-game problem. At one point after senior center Jashon Robertson left the game, Tennessee’s line consisted of redshirt freshmen Devante Brooks and Ryan Johnson, true freshmen Trey Smith and Riley Locklear and sophomore Joe Keeler.
In six SEC games, the Vols have scored just six offensive touchdowns, a big part of why they rank 14th in scoring, 13th in passing and 11th in rushing.
Maybe that’s why Hoke questioned twice gambling on fourth down, especially the second that as fourth-and-inches at the Vols’ 21 with 2:32 left in the third quarter.
“Probably going for the second fourth down with the field position we had at the time in the game and where we were with some of our offensive linemen, I thought we would give ourselves a chance to keep the possession going.”
LSU 3 14 13 0 – 30
Tennessee 0 10 0 0 – 10
LSU – FG Connor Culp 30, 6:38
TENN – FG Aaron Medley 45, 13:59
LSU – Darrel Williams 10 run (Culp kick), 11:31
LSU – Danny Etling 13 run (Culp kick), 2:08
TENN – Marquez Callaway 46 pass from Jarrett Guarantano (Medley kick), 1:23
LSU – Derrius Guice 3 run (kick failed), 7:26
LSU – Darrel Williams 6 run (Culp kick), 2:06
First Downs 17 12
Rushes-Yds 43-200 34-38
Passing Yards 81 249
Comp-Att-Int 11-15-0 14-25-0
Plys-Tot Yds 58-281 59-287
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 0-0
Punts-Avg 5-49.2 4-51.0
Penalties-Yds 1-9 5-26
RUSHING – LSU: Derrius Guice 24-97, Darrel Williams 7-68, Danny Etling 9-42, Team 2-minus 3; Tennessee: John Kelly 25-47, Carlin Fils-Aime 2-6, Team 1-minus 6, Jarrett Guarantano 6-minus 9.
PASSING – LSU: Etling 11-15-0-81; Tennessee: Guarantano 13-23-0-239, Kelly 1-1-0-10.
RECEIVING – LSU: Williams 3-30, Russel Gage 1-16, Guice 3-11, Foster Moreau 2-5; Tennessee: Marquez Callaway 2-72, Tim Jordan 2-44, Kelly 3-31, Brandon Johnson 3-25.
(Contact Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @larryfleming44)