Dan Fleser: Shocking Vols Defeat Continues Dramatic Collapse After Georgia Halftime

Saturday, October 17, 2020 - by Dan Fleser

Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano dropped back to pass, threw across the field and hit a receiver in stride.


The only problem was his target turned out to be Kentucky defensive back Kelvin Joseph, not a teammate. Joseph caught the beautifully thrown football – beautiful for him anyway – and cruised 41 yards for a touchdown.


The interception was the second of four turnovers on four consecutive possessions for the Vols.

In the process, a near cloudless day became a total eclipse that ended in a shocking 34-7 loss to the Wildcats at Neyland Stadium.


The victory was Kentucky’s first in Knoxville since 1984. The margin of victory was even more historic. It was the opponent’s most lopsided win here since 1893, when the school was named Kentucky A&M.


The game’s one-sided nature underscored how dramatically the season’s narrative has changed for Tennessee (2-2). The Vols went to the locker room at halftime last Saturday in Athens, Ga., full of confidence after their goal line stand had preserved a four-point lead. In the six quarters since then, they’ve been outscored 61-7 and committed seven turnovers.


Former UT great Al Wilson spoke to the team this week and emphasized the standards that were in place during his career, which included a national championship in 1998. UT coach Jeremy Pruitt was compelled by Saturday’s sloppy, underwhelming performance to put a more urgent spin on Wilson’s message.


“It’s more about creating the right habits,” he said. “How you practice every single day, the work ethic … it’s on everybody within our organization to improve that.”


While addressing the game issues, Pruitt had to answer for wearing a more typical mask after wearing an orange-and-white checkerboard gaiter the past two weeks, which didn’t cover his mouth and nose. Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger reported that Tennessee was among three schools fined $100,000 by the SEC for not adhering to the league’s COVID-19 protocols. The money will be taken from the schools’ conference revenue distribution.


“It is much easier they way I wore it today,” Pruitt said of his mask adjustment, “to tip the front of it down and it comes back up.”


only changing quarterbacks worked out so well. Guarantano had a hand in three of the turnovers. He was charged with a fumble on the possession before the interception. The third turnover was another interception, arguably more egregious than the first, that linebacker Jamin Davis hauled 85 yards for another pick-six.


The Vols went to backup J.T. Shrout next and his first pass was intercepted. The lone ray of quarterback sunshine thereafter was freshman Harrison Bailey’s fourth-quarter cameo appearance and his well-thrown 24-yard completion to fellow freshman Malachi Wideman. Bailey’s next pass was almost intercepted, however.


As for Guarantano, who had three turnovers last week, Pruitt assessed the QB’s latest batch in the following manner: The fumble wasn’t his fault. Pruitt wasn’t a fan of the play call that led to the first interception. The QB should’ve checked to another receiver on the second interception.


“Going forward, I don’t want to see any Jarrett Guarantano slander,” offensive lineman Trey Smith said. “I don’t want to see it.”


That all said, it’s hard to play defense on Guarantano’s behalf anymore. The Vols trailed just 17-7 at halftime but seemed lifeless in the second half. There were other issues but those turnovers had to be a factor.


You can’t mask mistakes of that nature.     


* * *


Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.


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