Silverberg: Some positives, but issues still linger for Vols

Tennessee QB Brian Maurer. PHOTO: Sam Forman, WNML.

By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg

There’s something about Georgia that brings out the best in Tennessee under Jeremy Pruitt.

For the second year in a row Tennessee went into its annual rivalry game against Georgia as a huge underdog. For the second year in a row Tennessee played a fairly large portion of the game at a level far beyond the level of the season’s previous four games.

But for the second year in a row, Pruitt’s team walked out on the losing end to the Bulldogs.

Tennessee’s 43-14 loss to Georgia on Saturday was focused around freshman Brian Maurer making his first career start at quarterback for the Vols (1-4, 0-2). After a pair of early touchdown passes gave Tennessee a 14-10 lead early in the second quarter, the offense managed to drive inside Georgia’s 40-yard line only three more times. One ended with Brent Cimaglia’s first missed field goal of the season and the other ended when Tae Crowder picked up a Maurer fumble and returned it for a touchdown.

The Vols made it to the red zone in the final minutes of the game with Jarrett Guarantano in relief for Maurer. Tennessee used a pair of big runs combined with a facemask and a pass interference call against the Bulldogs to get to Georgia’s 5-yard line, but four incompletions from Guarantano ended the drive with a turnover on downs.

Tennessee kept it interesting well into the second half, however. The Vols stopped Georgia in the red zone and forced a field goal in the third quarter and followed that up by stuffing D’Andre Swift on 4th and one inside the Tennessee 40 to stay within two scores going into the fourth.

Ultimately, the Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0) took control of the game when they needed to and never let Tennessee get into any kind of rhythm in the second half.

There’s positives to take from Maurer’s first start. He was shaken up on the hit he took that caused the fumble and didn’t take another snap, but the score likely played a factor in that. However, there were several things over the course of Saturday night’s game at Neyland Stadium that Tennessee needs to figure out before Mississippi State visits Knoxville.

Assessing Maurer’s performance

After starting 10-17, Maurer finished 14-28 for 259 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and a lost fumble. His first touchdown came on Tennessee’s second drive of the game when Marquez Callaway pulled off a nice in-and-go route to fool the corner and the safety. Maurer hit Callaway wide open down the field for an easy score.

Maurer’s second score came on the first play of the second quarter when he found Jauan Jennings over the middle on a slant to give Tennessee it’s first lead against an SEC opponent since the second quarter of the Missouri game last season.

There was definitely a buzz to the offense with Maurer under center. He looked comfortable in the pocket and didn’t seem fazed by the big stage against a top five team. The freshman gave Georgia’s secondary fits for most of the first half and continued to utilize Jennings throughout the night.

His performance fizzled out in the second half. Perhaps that was due to adjustments made by Georgia. Perhaps the moment caught up to him. Maybe a little of both. It’s tough to ask a freshman making his first career start to sustain a high level of play against an opponent of that caliber. Maurer only had one completion in the third quarter and it was a blown up screen pass to Jennings that resulted in no gain.

In his defense Maurer didn’t have a ton of help. The Vols struggled to get the run game going and finished with only 70 yards with Tim Jordan picking up a chunk of those in garbage time after the score had all but decided the outcome. Ty Chandler finished with 38 yards on seven carries. Eric Gray had a nine-yard run at one point, but finished with five total yards on five attempts.

The first touchdown pass can be chalked up to a combination of a great move by Callaway and a blown coverage by the Georgia secondary, but the second score was a great drive engineered by Maurer. He went 5-9 for 66 yards and the scoring pass to Jennings to cap a ten-play, 75-yard drive. He connected with Callaway on a third down and ten for a gain of eleven to keep the drive alive.

Assuming he’s healthy, Maurer appears to have earned the right to start against Mississippi State next Saturday.

The defense made some stops, but…

Forcing the turnover on downs was a big momentum boost, and making Georgia settle for three field goals allowed Tennessee to keep it relatively close heading into the final frame, but the defense otherwise didn’t help Maurer and the Tennessee offense.

Excluding Georgia’s final drive where it took two knees to run out the clock, the Bulldogs scored on seven of ten possessions. Jake Fromm only had five incompletions, Tennessee didn’t force a turnover, didn’t sack Fromm once and gave up 526 yards of total offense, including 238 on the ground at nearly six yards per attempt for Georgia.

The Vols struggled in pass coverage. Not generating a pass rush will typically lead to that, but missing assignments to give up big plays is a matter of picking up receivers, as seen on the play below.

Tennessee’s tackling was sloppy for most of the night as well. Ball carriers were bouncing off defenders and in some cases it allowed Georgia to turn seemingly forgetful runs into game-changing plays. This big run from Georgia’s Brian Herrien is a key example.

Herrien breaks three tackles and ultimately has five defenders on top of him before he finally goes down. Swift and Herrien are an excellent combo, but the Vols have to regroup quickly with the run defense with Mississippi State’s Kylin Hill coming to town next.

Not enough can be said about Jauan Jennings

The team’s leading receiver continues to shine. Along with his touchdown grab, Jennings finished with seven catches for 114 yards, including this two-yard out route that he turned into a 21-yard gain by bulldozing over a defender.

It’s Jennings’ third game this season with seven catches. He has 26 receptions for 395 yards and five touchdowns on the season. He’s on pace for a 60-catch year. Tennessee hasn’t had a single receiver reach 40 catches since three different players did it in 2016.

Tennessee stuck around

Yes, Georgia covered a 25-point spread and ultimately dominated Tennessee in a game that may have never felt in doubt on the visiting team’s sideline, but the Vols had first down at midfield and only down by two scores with less than five minutes to play in the third quarter.

Georgia may have been in control, but for the home crowd, that’s a scenario where the game is still up in the air. There was hope. There were more reasons for fans to stay well into the fourth quarter.

Fans are probably tired of moral victories, and they should be. The Vol faithful continue to show out strong in Neyland Stadium despite a disastrous start to 2019, but it was a promising showing against Georgia last year that sparked two wins over ranked opponents.

The big question is if Tennessee can get that spark again this year and cultivate it to a higher level than it did a season ago.

What’s next?

Tennessee hosts Mississippi State at noon on Saturday at Neyland Stadium. The Bulldogs are 3-2 and have had a week off to recover from an embarrassing 56-23 loss to Auburn on Sept. 28.

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