KNOXVILLE – The roles finally were reversed on Saturday afternoon at Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee was the football team lingering on the field, swaying side to side to the sounds of the Tennessee Waltz while celebrating a 45-0 victory over Chattanooga. The moment was three exasperating weeks in the making. It couldn’t have happened to a more needy team.
“The one thing that you never want to get to is a place where not winning doesn’t bother you,” UT coach Jeremy Pruitt said.
Chattanooga (1-2), on the other hand, trudged to its locker room, chastened by what took place.
While Mocs coach Rusty Wright wasn’t feeling the same sort of hurt that tormented the Vols after their first two losses, he was no less anguished.
“We came over here yesterday for the walk-through and we act like it’s no big deal,” he said. “It was a big deal in the first quarter you know. That is what’s disappointing to me.
“We’ve got to overcome some things. I don’t know if we think we’re better than we are or what it may be but we have got a long way to go internally to get some stuff right. We will get there.”
Here’s a review of Saturday’s storylines within the context of a one-sided game:
Jarrett Guarantano: The first pass by UT’s quarterback, a deep toss to Marquez Callaway, was underthrown and almost intercepted. Thereafter, he completing his final seven passes for 142 yards and a career-high three touchdowns.
Rather than consider the state of his play in terms of next Saturday’s cauldron at Florida, I’m inclined to let Guarantano savor his performance. Sounded like he needed it, regardless of the opponent.
“I’ve never really felt like that out there,” he said, referencing the first two games. “I wanted to get back to feeling more like myself.”
Turnovers: The Vols have been harping on this topic for weeks and the math swung in their favor. They gathered five will committing zero.
Pruitt would like to think the Vols’ play had something to do with the turnaround.
“There’s a certain attitude and a way that you play that, to me, indicates whether you get turnovers or not,” he said. “If you’re running around hitting people, or if you get your hands up and you bat balls, if you’ve got a lot of people swarming and peppering the ball carriers, there seems to be more balls out.
No matter how much running and hitting and batting and swarming the Vols did, the Mocs thought that the turnovers were largely their doing.
“The bad part about it is there was one throw in the first half (quarterback) Nick (Tiano) wasn’t expecting the guy,” Wright said. “The rest of them, those are our errors. That is not what they did, it was either our errors or not being in the right spot.”
Backup Quarterbacks: Chattanooga afforded UT the opportunity to play both Brian Maurer and J.T. Shrout. While Maurer entered the game first during the first quarter, Pruitt cautioned not to read anything into that.
The biggest takeaway was that, regardless of his struggles, Guarantano is Tennessee’s best quarterback. While Maurer showed some running ability, the backups didn’t do enough to even hint at a pecking order behind the starter.
“We’ll check the film and see who was the most consistent and see where we’re at,” Pruitt said. “But I didn’t see much out there that separated them today.”
Daniel Bituli’s back: Pruitt said that the Vols haven’t had much trouble with lining up properly since the opener against Georgia State.
Maybe so, but the senior linebacker, who had been sidelined by minor knee surgery, played his first game on Saturday and was communicating and directing players on all three levels of the defense. Bituli re-entered the game late in the first quarter, when Chattanooga mustered an 11-play drive that reached Tennessee’s 1-yard line.
“I’m glad I’m back to be able to correct these young guys,” he said.
Final takeaway: Along with the win, the Vols needed confidence and they got some with their play.
The Mocs, meanwhile, have some soul-searching to do.
“Hopefully, we learn from it,” Wright said. “It doesn’t do you any good to get your butt whipped and not learn anything from it. Our daddy’s raised us better than that when that happened.”
* * *
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He may be reached at email@example.com