By Jimmy Hyams
A few days ago, Jeremy Pruitt said his Tennessee team was evenly matched against Charlotte.
I didn’t believe him.
Maybe I should now.
A Tennessee offense that was effective against South Carolina sputtered against a program that only recently went from FCS to FBS status, a team that was clobbered by Appalachian State 45-9.
A homecoming crowd of about 55,000 at Neyland Stadium watched the Vols’ feeble attack narrowly escape 14-3 Saturday on the SEC Network alternate channel.
That was appropriate because Tennessee alternated between inept and awful. UT managed just 20 yards on 26 runs against the No. 6 ranked run defense in the country (89.6 yards per game). The Vols had minus-7 yards entering the fourth quarter.
Charlotte (4-5) not only outrushed Tennessee (4-5) 92-20, the 49ers outgained the Vols 244-192. The combined 436 total yards amounts to about a half for Alabama’s offense.
UT’s leading rusher, Jeremy Banks, was playing linebacker last week. He finished with a mere 24 yards on 11 carries.
But rather than criticize his team, Pruitt praised Charlotte.
Asked why the Vols struggled so on offense, Pruitt said simply: “Charlotte.’’
He said the 49ers lined up differently quite often, causing indecision along the offensive line. And UT’s inability to run block led Pruitt to rotate lineman, compared to using only five last week against South Carolina.
Did Pruitt think going in the Vols – who ran for 156 against Florida and 144 against USC – would be more productive on the ground entering the game?
“We’ve struggled to run the ball all year so I don’t know why this game would be much different,’’ Pruitt said.
Asked if UT held anything back on offense preparing for future opponents, Pruitt said: “No, that’s not how we coach.’’
While Pruitt was lauding Charlotte, receiver Marquez Callaway said the Vols took a peek ahead.
“I think a lot of us underestimated Charlotte,’’ Callaway said. “They’re a great team, offense and defense. I think we were ready to get on to Kentucky (UT’s opponent Nov. 10).’’
UT certainly wasn’t ready for Charlotte. Yes, the 49ers have a nice team by Conference USA standards, but this game shouldn’t have been this close.
UT’s offensive line was repeatedly whipped by the 49ers. And the Vols had at least 10 negative yardage plays – which was rather embarrassing.
“We’ve got to do a better job in all phases of the offense,’’ Pruitt said. “It starts with the running game.’’
If not for a fortuitous break in the first half, this game could have been closer. A Charlotte punt pinned UT at its 6-yard line, but the 49ers were guilty of an illegal formation. A line drive rugby punt was then fielded by Callaway at his 18, and he outraced defenders to the right side and sprinted to the end zone.
“We knew they were a rugby team,’’ Callaway said. “And we’d have an opportunity to get to the other (side of) the field for a big return. As soon as I caught it, if I was able to get to the corner, I knew the blockers we’re going to be there.
“It was great getting to the end zone. I think the team was more happy for me that I was.’’
If not for that play, who knows how this snoozer of a game would have turned out.
Thankfully for UT, the defense showed up. Not that Charlotte is an offensive machine, but holding a team to only a field goal nowadays is an accomplishment.
“Coach Pruitt says the game starts 0-0,’’ said defensive end Kyle Phillips, “so if we don’t let them score, they can’t win.’’
Pruitt certainly wasn’t as unhappy with Saturday’s game as the fans.
“I’m proud of the way the guys found a way to win,’’ he said.
Callaway was in the same boat.
“As win is a win,’’ he said. “We’re always happy for a win, no matter who it is.’’
Even if it wasn’t very pretty.