Silverberg: Dissecting Tennessee’s stunning loss to BYU

Tennessee running back Eric Gray. PHOTO: Sam Forman, WNML.

By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg

Despite everything that’s happened in the past eleven seasons, this one still didn’t seem possible.

When Pig Howard fumbled through the end zone in overtime against Georgia in 2013, it effectively ended what had been a nice upset bid for Tennessee.

When Tennessee blew a 9-0 fourth quarter lead to Florida at home in 2014, it had been an ugly game throughout and it felt like it was a matter of which team made a big play to take over down the stretch. Tennessee had already turned the ball over in the red zone, but didn’t score a touchdown all afternoon as Treon Harris came off the bench to lead the Gators to a 10-9 win.

When the Vols fell to Oklahoma in overtime in 2015 there were certainly chances for Tennessee to put the game away. A field goal on the 1-yard line early, a stagnant offense in the second half and a phantom pass interference call late in the fourth quarter that helped the Sooners tie the game. Tennessee had some breaks early to build a big lead. It just couldn’t hold on.

That same season when they let a 13-point fourth quarter lead slip away in Gainesville the Vols couldn’t run out the clock and there were questions as to why then-head coach Butch Jones didn’t go for two to make it a 14-point lead earlier in the game. Florida scored the game-winning touchdown on 4th and 14 and Tennessee kicker Aaron Medley missed a prayer from 55 yards out in a 28-27 loss.

But this…this one truly seemed like it was Tennessee’s night.

Until it wasn’t.

Zach Wilson connected on a 64-yard prayer to Micah Simon in the waning seconds of regulation to set up a game-tying field goal and force overtime. After the teams traded touchdowns with their first possessions Tennessee settled for a field goal before BYU’s Ty’Son Williams burrowed into the end zone to hand the Vols an unthinkable 29-26 loss.

There’s no excuse for Tennessee to lose the aforementioned games and several other crushing defeats the Vols have suffered over the years, but Florida, Oklahoma and Georgia are all solid programs that have had some level of elite success in fairly recent years. Those are teams that typically present challenges to anyone, including Tennessee.

BYU is a respectable program, but a non conference opponent that Tennessee had never faced prior to Saturday doesn’t carry nearly the same weight into a contest at Neyland Stadium as some of the other storied programs that have visited Knoxville over the years.

On Saturday Tennessee truly looked like the better team for the majority of the game. The Vols looked unstoppable on the ground, didn’t let BYU get into much of a rhythm on offense and were much improved from the season opening debacle against Georgia State the week before.

BYU’s only touchdown in regulation came on a drive it started at the Tennessee 20 after a Jarrett Guarantano interception to start the second half.

BYU’s other two touchdowns came in overtime, the second being the game-winner and sending the fans who made the long trip from Provo into a frenzy inside Neyland Stadium. All three of the Cougars’ touchdown drives were 25 yards or shorter.

But Tennessee was unsteady in the game’s biggest moments. The Vols were only 5-16 on 3rd down conversions and 3-8 when the distance to gain was five yards or fewer.

Tennessee went 1-3 on 4th down. The lone conversion was on its opening drive when Guarantano’s pass was batted by a BYU defender before being caught by Jauan Jennings in the end zone. On the other two attempts Eric Gray was stuffed at the BYU 19 and Josh Palmer failed to get a single yard on an end-around play at the BYU 30, which could’ve allowed Tennessee to run out the clock or make it a two-possession game.

Tennessee led by as many as ten points in the second half and never trailed in regulation.

After being held to only 93 rushing yards and turning the ball over three times against Georgia State, Tennessee ran for 242 yards while averaging nearly five yards per rush. Guarantano’s pick was the only turnover of the game.

The Vols were cleaner, more efficient and controlled the game more than they did a week ago.

Yet, the result was the same. Tennessee is 0-2 for the first time since 1988.

Before we get to next week’s talking points, let’s revisit what was highlighted a week ago:

Jauan Jennings: Only had four catches, but that was likely due to Tennessee’s success in the running game. Came up with a big 4th down score to get the Vols rolling and another in the first overtime to keep Tennessee in the game.

1-2 punch with Ty Chandler and Gray: They combined for 43 carries and 231 yards. Both running backs made Cougar tacklers miss all night and Chandler had a pair of big runs, including a 53-yarder that led to Brent Cimaglia’s second field goal.

Special Teams: Speaking of Cimaglia, he went 4-4 on field goals, including a 51-yarder with plenty of leg to spare. Joe Doyle pinned BYU inside its own 20 twice with punts and the Vols didn’t give up anything in the return game.

Henry To’oto’o looks the part: Continues to be the case. He was quick to step into running lanes and make stops and was shooting gaps like an upperclassmen. He finished with eight tackles, including a tackle for loss.

Darrell Taylor: He was a factor from the first drive of the game for Tennessee. After being a no show last week, Taylor was a constant problem for Wilson. He had eight tackles and a sack and also drew a holding penalty on BYU’s final drive of the fourth quarter.

Line of scrimmage: Opened up running lanes on offense and got after Wilson with the pass rush on defense, finishing with four sacks. Offensive line needed to be better on runs between the tackles. Tennessee came away empty-handed in the red zone when it failed to convert a 4th and one at the BYU 19.

Finish: This is the only area where some sort of checkmark can’t be placed. Tennessee had a plethora of chances to close this game out. It was nearly mathematically impossible for BYU to win the football game with less than 30 seconds to go and roughly 45 yards out of field goal range and no timeouts, but a blown coverage assignment and a last second field goal put the game in overtime and ultimately stunned the Vols.

Now, as difficult as it seems, here are some notes to move forward with following a(nother) improbable loss.

The offensive line might be coming together

Tennessee is still playing 8-10 players on the offensive line, but there seemed to be more stability up front. Guarantano was only sacked once and hurried only once more. Plus the running game was significantly improved. BYU is strong on the defensive line when it comes to stopping the run between the tackles, so Tennessee used the stretch zone and off tackle runs to gash the Cougars for 242 yards on the ground.

The loss still stings, but there’s certainly more optimism with this position group now than there was a week ago.

Chandler and Gray getting more touches

This was mentioned above, but it’s worth noting again. Chandler and Gray touched the ball a total of 47 times after combining for only 20 against Georgia State. The difference was obvious. Especially in the running game. Chandler averaged nearly six yards per rushing attempt and Gray averaged four and a half.

Both backs were a headache for BYU’s defense all night. If either ball carrier got to the edge it was almost guaranteed the first defender wouldn’t make the tackle. Not being able to pick up positive yards on the ground is something that’s bitten Tennessee in the past against higher-caliber SEC teams. The Vols will give themselves more of a shot if they can sustain that type of success in their final ten games.

Plus both players showed they can handle a heavy workload in a physical football game. Chandler’s always been viewed as a home run threat, but his 26 carries on Saturday night was a career high and he didn’t seem bothered by the larger sum of attempts.

If the offensive line continues to improve Chandler and Gray could be a monster problem for opposing defensive coordinators.

Guarantano seeing his pitches, but can’t hit the home run

Late in the first half with Tennessee having first and ten at BYU’s 31 Guarantano had Jennings in space in the end zone, but the pass was late and under thrown. Austin Lee was able to recover and knock it away before Jennings could secure it. Jennings had to slow up and come back to the ball allowing the defensive back to make a play. The Vols settled for a field goal.

Late in the third quarter with Tennessee up by three and the ball on its own 18, Guarantano faked the end-around handoff and launched the football down the field to a streaking Palmer with both the corner and the safety several steps behind him. A catch by Palmer and he’s running into the checkerboards, but Guarantano overcooked the pass and it fell incomplete.

On that same possession, Tennessee still moved the ball inside the BYU 10-yard line. Facing 3rd and goal at the five early in the fourth quarter, Guarantano had Jennings on a five-yard out route towards the far sideline on the outside of a pair of defenders.

Guarantano fired a bullet to Jennings’ inside shoulder instead of lofting it over the defender and allowing Jennings a chance to shield Lee away from the ball. Instead Jennings had to turn back to the football and the pass’ low trajectory allowed Lee to knock it down. Tennessee settled for another field goal to push its lead to 16-10.

A touchdown for Guarantano on either of those drives and Tennessee wins the football game. Those are three passes he’d like to have back.

You called that on 4th down?

With Tennessee leading 16-13 with just under four and a half minutes to play, the Vols were faced with 4th and one at the BYU 30. Tennessee had been taking advantage of BYU with off tackle runs all night, but Jim Chaney opted to call the second end-around run of the drive. Palmer was hit behind the line of scrimmage and only gained a half yard as the Vols turned it over.

BYU was unable to take advantage on the ensuing drive, but a different play call possibly results in a first down with Tennessee able to potentially run out the clock or take a two-score lead.

Tired on defense?

Jeremy Pruitt after the loss: “We had some linebackers and defensive backs that got tired in the game. Especially at inside linebacker.”

Every player is understandably tired as a football game wears on. Especially one that ventures into double overtime, but the last thing Vol Nation wants to hear is that players on defense were worn out late in a big home game where the fan base showed up strong just seven days after one of the worst losses in school history.

Ball-hawking defense isn’t materializing

Pruitt said before the season that he wants his defense to be ball-hawking, create a lot of turnovers and be physical up front. Tennessee has one takeaway in two games and got only three points off of that takeaway in the loss to Georgia State.

Close. Out. The. Game.

It feels like Tennessee fans have seen this story too many times. A game that appears to be an imminent win for the Vols somehow ends up in defeat. Tennessee’s missed chances on offense were salvaged by the defense time and time again. The Vols made BYU settle for field goals and use two different punters to give Tennessee the football back six times.

In the end nobody could close out the game for Tennessee.

Taylor beat his man to the outside on BYU’s final drive in the fourth quarter to draw a hold. That  should’ve sealed it. BYU was backed up to it’s own 8-yard line with less than a minute to play and no timeouts.

Quavaris Crouch nearly picked off Wilson’s next pass and then Tennessee flushed Wilson out of the pocket on 2nd and 18 to make Wilson scramble for a gain of 12 before being tackled in bounds.

Somehow on the next play Micah Simon ran right past Alontae Taylor. Wilson hit him for a 64-yard play to the Tennessee 16. BYU was able to spike the ball and stop the clock. Jake Oldroyd’s field goal sent the game to overtime and 20 minutes later Tennessee was left wondering how it had fallen to 0-2.

Pruitt said the defense called on that long pass was the same as the previous plays, which makes it harder to understand how Taylor lost his assignment.

On offense Tennessee had the ball three times in the fourth quarter. Those drives ended in the following order:

Field goal in the red zone.

Failed 4th down conversion.

Three and out.

A touchdown on the first possession, points on the second or a first down on the third and Tennessee gets a much needed win at home.

It’s hard to lose a game when a team controls it for the first 59 minutes, but failing to capitalize on individual plays here or there can add up in a hurry. That’s exactly what happened Saturday night.

Tennessee needs a closer. It has one on offense in Jennings, who kept Tennessee alive in overtime, but needs a player on the other side of the ball who can be expected to make a play when the defense needs to get off the field.

What’s next?

Tennessee hosts FCS foe Chattanooga on Saturday at noon. The Mocs have a first time head coach in Rusty Wright and are coming off a 41-20 loss to Jacksonville State.

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