By Jimmy Hyams
For all of the improvement Tennessee was supposed to have made over last year’s team, Saturday’s game against Missouri looked eerily similar to last year’s result.
Missouri (7-4) didn’t rack up over 400 rushing yards – which it had done in the last two meetings — but the Tigers did enough to match last season’s 50-17 victory over the up-and-down Vols (5-6).
Only the venue had changed. In Neyland Stadium, the 6-point underdog Vols were expected to make the game competitive – especially after upsetting then No. 12 Kentucky. Didn’t happen.
“That was just an old-fashioned butt whipping,’’ Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said.
“They outcoached us, they outplayed us, they outhit us, out toughed us. They executed better than we did. Had less turnovers (3 to 1). Scored touchdowns in the red area. Took advantage of the mistakes we made. Created negative plays for us on offense and made explosive plays when they had the ball.’’
Missouri’s balanced offense – 227 yards rushing, 257 passing – was too much for a Tennessee team that managed only 255 total yards – 82 rushing. The Tigers converted 7 of 14 on third-down to UT’s 2 of 10 and dominated time of possession, holding the ball for 37 minutes, 22 seconds.
Missouri quarterback Drew Lock, who completed 21 of 30 passes for two scores, became the SEC’s No. 2 all-time passer during the game.
It was UT’s second most lop-sided loss of the season and continued Missouri’s amazing dominance over the Vols. The Tigers have won three of the last six meetings by at least 28 points (50-17, 50-17, 31-3) and they’ve won three out of four in Knoxville, scoring 50 points twice.
Fewer than 70,000 watched Tennessee’s bowl hopes come down to a final game – an SEC contest at Vanderbilt on Saturday. Whatever good will Pruitt has created this season, a loss to Vandy – right or wrong — would cause many in the Vol Nation to lose faith.
One thing is certain – Tennessee can’t play like it did against Missouri if it aspires to play in a bowl.
How can a team play so well against Kentucky then so badly against Missouri?
“It’s very frustrating,’’ said senior defensive end Kyle Phillips. “We talked this week about sustaining, and we didn’t sustain. We’ve got to do a better job of that, for sure.’’
For sure, Tennessee didn’t match up well against Missouri. Not many teams do. If the Tigers spread the field and the defense spreads with them, they run. If you try to load the box, the Tigers passed.
“It’s pick your poison,’’ Pruitt said.
Tennessee lost starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano to an apparent head injury after three series. Keller Chryst, the graduate transfer from Stanford, made some nice throws early, hitting Jauan Jennings for 41 yards to spark a touchdown drive that gave UT a 7-6 lead early in the second quarter. He later hit a 49-yarder to Marquez Callaway, who made an acrobatic catch that set up a field goal.
But then, Chryst made a critical mistake that you wouldn’t expect Guarantano to make. Chryst’s errant throw was intercepted by DeMarkus Acy and returned 76 yards to the UT 11-yard line with 44 seconds left in the first half. Missouri converted that into a touchdown for a 26-10 lead.
Much like when UT hit a Hail Mary before halftime to beat Kentucky last week, Missouri’s score before half was huge.
Yes, UT did score on the opening possession of the third quarter, thanks in part to a 49-yard pass to Callaway, but Missouri scored the last 24 points of the game for the comfortable victory.
“We didn’t tackle well,’’ Pruitt said, “but maybe it was who we was playing against.’’
Clearly, Missouri is the better team. Truth is, the Tigers should be 8-2 if not for blowing games against South Carolina and Kentucky.
Tennessee is a team with little margin for error against good opponents. And UT made more mistakes on Senior Day than it could afford.
“We didn’t execute at a high level’’ Pruitt said.
Pruitt did something a bit unusual on the Vol Walk. During the walk, Pruitt had the team stop and look around at the massive crowd that cheered each step made by the coaches and players.
“I wanted to let them see who they represent,’’ Pruitt said of the Vol fans decked out in orange and white. “I wanted them to see it and understand it.’’
But ultimately, as Pruitt said: “It didn’t work.’’