By Jimmy Hyams
Tennessee showed signs Saturday of going in the right direction in the debut of first-year coach Jeremy Pruitt.
But, as expected, the Vols’ pass defense was no match for West Virginia’s aerial attack in the season opener at Charlotte as the Mountaineers rolled 40-14, easily beating the 10-point spread.
Mountaineer preseason All-American quarterback Will Grier torched the Vols for a career-high 429 yards and five touchdowns, hitting 25 of 34 throws against a secondary that played three true freshman.
Grier was particularly effective in the second half, throwing for 275 yards and four scores. He picked apart UT with strikes to David Sills V (seven catches, 140 yards, two touchdowns) and Gary Jennings (six for 113, one score) after a lackluster first half in which he hit 9 of 15 passes for 154 yards.
This was simply a case of Tennessee not having enough talent in the secondary to cover WVA’s wideouts. It was also a case of Grier making some pinpoint throws and his receivers making nice catches.
Tennessee kept it close in the first half, thanks to a nine-minute 17-play drive that left Grier and Co. on the bench. The Vols’ touchdown drive cut WVA’s lead to 10-7 in the second quarter and it appeared the Vols might make a game of it. UT trailed 13-7 at halftime.
“I liked the way we played the first half,’’ said Pruitt, who called the defensive signals. “But we didn’t play very smart. We made lots of mistakes on the offensive line.’’
Yet, UT had gone toe-to-toe with the 17th-ranked team in the country.
But after an 85-minute weather delay at halftime, the Vols didn’t seem like the same team. Did the delay impact the Vols?
“Give Dana (Holgorsen, WVA head coach) and his staff credit,’’ Pruitt said. “We had the same amount of time (to make adjustments) as they did.’’
While the Mountaineers’ offense was heating up, UT had no answers.
Despite the 26-point margin of defeat, Tennessee had some bright moments.
Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was 19 of 25 for 172 yards and fired some impressive bullets to Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings. He looked more accurate and more decisive than at any time last season.
“I thought in the first half Jarrett kept his poise,’’ Pruitt said. “He got put in some bad looks and made some bad plays. But he didn’t try to do something he couldn’t do.
“Jarrett’s tough …. He’s a tough kid. And he’ll only get better.’’
Backup running back Tim Jordan, subbing for the injured Ty Chandler (head), had a career-high 118 yards on 20 carries, showing toughness and determination.
“It’s not surprising,’’ Pruitt said. “Tim has been one of our better competitors since we got here.’’
The run defense, which allowed over 250 yards per game last year, held WVA to 118 yards. But overall, it’s hard to give the defense a better grade than a D as the Mountaineers rolled up 574 yards, 26 first downs and scored a touchdown on five of 10 possessions.
“The defense has got to execute better,’’ Pruitt said. “Some guys played well on defense. We’ve got to get all 11 playing well.’’
Darrin Kirkland Jr., who missed last season with knee injuries, led the Vols with 10 tackles, an encouraging sign.
The final score could have been closer had the Vols cashed in on a fourth-quarter drive that reached the WVA 2-yard line. A touchdown with 7 minutes left would have cut the margin to 33-21. But a fourth-down incompletion and an ensuing 98-yard WVA drive sealed the deal.
A big difference in the halves was third down. WVA converted 5 of 6 in the second half after going 0 for 3 in the first half. Meanwhile, the Vols were 0 for 4 in the second half after making 5 of 10 in the first half, twice making third-and-8.
Pruitt said the Vols played 30 good minutes against West Virginia. That might be enough to beat East Tennessee State and UTEP, but it won’t cut it against any team in the SEC.
Bottom line: UT must improve its pass defense and run game if it hopes to achieve a .500 season.