KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Rocky Top crumbled Saturday.
Hated rival Vanderbilt, which had the same dismal record as Tennessee coming into the season finale, roared to a 42-24 victory behind Kyle Shurmur’s four touchdown passes at Neyland Stadium and handed the Vols the first eight-loss season in the program’s 121-year history.
Welcome to Rocky Bottom.
Shurmur was 20 for 31 for 283 yards with two TD passes going to Trent Sherfield covering 20 and 12 yards and triggering a 21-point fourth quarter.
Piled on a heap of other unfortunate milestones put up in 2017, such as suffering the worst home loss since 1905 against Georgia and a string of 15 straight quarters without an offensive touchdown, Saturday’s depressing setback was more than the estimated 55,000 fans in Neyland Stadium (the paid attendance was 88,117).
“The culture is going to change,” redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano said after the painful loss. “We’re going to be working our tails off every single day and we’re just going to have to get things done, no matter who likes it. If they don’t like it, they can leave, but that’s just how things are going to be from now on.”
There will be changes for sure.
Athletic director John Currie is scurrying around trying to find a new coach to replace the one – Butch Jones – he fired just hours after the Vols’ tough 50-17 loss at Missouri on Nov. 11. Brady Hoke, the interim coach who went 0-2 as the Vols were outscored 72-34 down the stretch, and the entire staff could very well be gone in short order.
Before they leave, however, those coaches will try to keep together what’s left of a once promising 2018 recruiting class before the early signing period on Dec. 20-22.
“We’re not allowing this to happen again,” said freshman offensive lineman Trey Smith, who was truly one of the team’s few bright spots this season. “We’re going to be great leaders in the locker room, we’re all going to have a lot of control and we’re going to come back better. I promise that.”
It won’t be easy. A small truck load of disappointment will linger for days weeks or months. A big chunk of disillusionment stems from the fact that the Vols lost to Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the same season for the first time since 1964, Doug Dickey’s first year coaching the Vols.
“These guys that are coming back next year need to really learn from this game and this season,” senior defensive lineman Kendall Vickers said. “It should make them stronger. I know every guy in that locker room cares, and this should make them better for it.”
Vandy and Tennessee used to play for the “State Championship.” They didn’t even have that going for them this year. Memphis has put together a better football season. Even Austin Peay has stolen some headlines from the big boys.
The Commodores and Vols were just trying to survive the weekend. Tennessee has the SEC’s worst league record. While Vandy and Arkansas each finished 1-7, Tennessee is looking up at all 13 other schools.
After scoring 42 points in the season opening overtime win against Georgia Tech, the Vols’ offense went south and failed to score more than 26 points in any of the following 11 games.
Yet, Hoke said Tennessee has a lot to offer the next group of recruits, even without knowing who the next coach will be
“We have a lot to sell,” Hoke said. “You look at the city of Knoxville, you look at the tradition that Tennessee has in football, and I think those things are important. Relationships with people are always part of it, but most kids pick a school because of the school.”
Tennessee (4-8, 0-8) started quickly, getting touchdowns on its first two possessions on drives of 85 and 75 yards.
Guarantano, who was 14 for 22 for 183 yards and two touchdowns with one interception, found Marquez Callaway on a 2-yard TD pass in the end zone and running back John Kelly dove in from the 1.
On the drive, Guarantano connected with Brandon Johnson on back-to-back plays covering 18 and 32 yards that moved the Vols to Vandy’s 25. A pass interference call kept the drive alive and Kelly’s score put Tennessee up 14-7.
The day went downhill after the score for Kelly, who finished with 20 yards on 10 carries, and UT managed only 55 the entire game. Carlin Fils-Aime led the Vols with 31 yards on two carries. Guarantano was sacked three times for minus-13 yards.
Tennessee managed only three more points in the first half when Aaron Medley kicked a career-best 49-yard field goal with 5:22 left in the second quarter.
Just before Medley’s field goal, Shurmur threw his second touchdown pass, this one a 30-yarder to Kalija Lipscomb. Shurmur’s first TD toss was 9 yards to C.J. Duncan. Shurmur now owns the Vandy record for touchdown passes in a season with 26.
Running back Ralph Webb, who drew a Seattle Seahawks scout to Knoxville for a look-see, tied the game at 14-14 with a 2-yard scamper to paydirt. Webb, one of six active NCAA rushers with 4,173 career yards, ran 20 yards for Vandy’s final score in a 21-point fourth quarter that sent the Vols and what fans were still in the stands into a deeper depression.
Shurmur, whose father attended the game, added touchdown throws to Trent Sherfield for 12 and 20 yards separated by less than a minute.
“I think it’s great to win,” Shurmur said. “Our full focus was on Tennessee and we got the job done, so it feels great.”
It was Vanderbilt’s second straight win against the Vols and fourth in the past six meetings in a rivalry that began in 1892. Shurmur was 21 for 34 for 416 yards and two touchdowns in last season’s 45-34 win in Nashville.
Hoke faced having to dish out disciplinary action against injured Jauan Jennings and after consultation with Currie, the coach dismissed Jennings from the team.
None of the bedlam surrounding Tennessee affected the Commodores, who lost 28 of 29 games to the Vols in one stretch.
They put up 529 yards of offense while the Vols’ offense managed just 238.
“These seniors get a chance to beat Tennessee back-to-back for – I don’t know, I think there have been five head coaches to do it,” Vandy coach Derek Mason said. “It was a great opportunity for this senior class. Their legacy will be cemented, that’s for sure.
“2017 is pretty much done, so this group started strong and finished strong. That was our goal.”
The bedlam on and off the field continues in the coming weeks as Vols coaches fan out and try to salvage what they can from a once promising recruiting class, which has been shredded in the days before and after Jones’ firing.
Vanderbilt 7 14 0 21 – 42
Tennessee 14 0 3 7 – 24
UT – Marquez Callaway 2 pass from Jarrett Guarantano (Aaron Medley kick), 10:06
VU – C.J. Duncan 9 pass from Kyle Shurmur (Tommy Openshaw kick), 6:13
UT – John Kelly 1 run (Medley kick), 2:50
VU – Ralph Webb 2 run (Openshaw kick), 11:47
VU – Kalija Lipscomb 30 pass from Shurmur (Openshaw kick), 2:37
UT – FG Medley 49, 5:22
VU – Trent Sherfield 20 pass from Shurmur (Openshaw kick), 14:20
VU – Sherfield 12 pass from Shurmur (Openshaw kick), 6:58
VU – Webb 20 run (Openshaw kick), 5:59
UT – Ethan Wolf 20 pass from Guarantano (Medley kick), 4:27
First Downs 33 15
Rushes-Yds 43-246 21-55
Passing Yards 283 183
Comp-Att-Int 20-31-0 14-22-1
Plays-Tot Yds 74-529 43-238
Fumbles-Lost 1-0 0-0
Punts-Avg 1-37.0 4-50.0
Penalties-Yds 8-60 5-27
RUSHING – Vanderbilt: Ralph Webb 25-163, Dallas Rivers 5-29, Jamauri Wakefield 4-26, Sam Dobbs 1-9, Kyle Shurmur 5-8, Donaven Tennyson 1-4, Trent Sherfield 1-4, Baffour Osei 1-3; Tennessee: Carlin Fils-Aime 2-31, John Kelly 10-20, Ty Chandler 3-19, Team 1-minus 2, Jarrett Guarantano 5-minus 13.
PASSING – Vanderbilt: Shurmur 20-31-0-283; Tennessee: Guarantano 14-22-1-183.
RECEIVING – Vanderbilt: C.J. Duncan 6-99, Sherfield 6-81, Kalija Lipscomb 5-58, Tennyson 1-25, Sam Dobbs 1-16, Webb 1-4; Tennessee: Brandon Johnson 6-107, Ethan Wolf 2-40, Marquez Callaway 3-16, Jeff George 1-15, Kelly 1-5, Tim Jordan 1-0.
(Contact Larry Fleming at email@example.com and on Twitter @larryfleming44)