Recap And Analysis: Tennessee vs UAB
Make no mistake, Tennessee beat a game UAB team on the back of another brilliant performance by their defense. Derrick Ansley called a superb game, and his starters executed the game plan to a tee. Tennessee’s defensive line did what they have done for the last month, they got penetration, occupied blockers, and clogged up running lanes for the Blazers between the tackles. UAB had some success with a speed option look attacking the edges of the Tennessee defense, but the interior run game was tough sledding all night. As the game went on, the size and strength of the Volunteer front began to show, as Tennessee lineman began to knock down passes, put pressure on the quarterback, and get some sacks. Darel Middleton even recovered a fumble that was forced by Aubrey Solomon from a hit on Blazers’ quarterback Tyler Johnston III. The play from the linebackers was also impressive, as Henry To’oto’o turned in his usual stellar performance while Darrell Taylor came up with a sack and got close on two other occasions while being dinged up himself. While there are several storylines to explore in a great team night for the defense, this game belonged to one defender in particular.
Tyler Johnston III has been a key for much of UAB’s success over the past two seasons. The Blazers have some real talent in their wide receiver group, and Johnston III is the player responsible for getting them the ball so they can make plays. It became evident early on in the game that the Vols were going to throw all they had at Johnston Iii, forcing UAB to get the ball downfield in the face of significant pressure. Tennessee played tight coverage on the edges, taking away most of the quick swing and screen game that UAB likes to utilize to get the ball quickly into their playmakers’ hands. This meant Johnston III was forced to push the ball downfield, where Bryce Thompson was waiting. A Freshman All-American in 2018, Thompson has been playing a bit dinged up the last few weeks, and he was playing hurt against the Blazers. Those nagging injuries didn’t stop him from tying a Tennessee record with three interceptions in a game, a feat he managed in just a half. Thompson started early, intercepting a pass on the first play from scrimmage. The second pick was perhaps the most impressive, Thompson undercut a deep corner route and caught the ball in stride. He read the play, baited Johnston III into the throw, and snagged the interception. The Blazers were fortunate that Thompson didn’t score on the play. Thompson’s third pick put an end to a Blazers drive that was showing some promise, and gave the ball back to his own offense again. The injuries for Tennessee had really stacked up on the offensive side of the ball, and against a stingy defense, Thompson’s turnovers and outstanding coverage gave the Volunteer offense short fields and easy opportunities for points. The Blazers lone TD came on the backup defense late in the fourth quarter, bringing a stretch of nearly 6 scoreless quarters for the Volunteer defense to a close.
The brilliant defensive performance was necessary for Tennessee, as their own offense was able to move the ball, but as they have done so many times this season, struggled mightily in the red zone. Brian Maurer did not play for the second straight week, more than likely a precaution after he suffered two concussions in as many weeks. The feeling in practice this week was that Maurer could go if he had to, but the Vols wanted to allow him to rest and get healthy. That meant JT Shrout drew the start at quarterback for the Vols, except, being the starter didn’t mean he played all that much. Shrout would play the opening series of the game, only to stay on the bench until the opening series of the second half. Then, Shrout would be put on the bench again until late in the fourth quarter when Tennessee was looking to grind out the clock. Shrout looked fine in his brief appearances, but his snaps were so few and spread out, it was hard to truly evaluate him. It was also a bit head scratching to see him shuffled in and out. Jarrett Guarantano played the majority of the game at quarterback, despite having broken a bone in his left wrist last week against South Carolina and having surgery to repair it on Sunday. Guarantano looked fine until he took a hard sack off his blind side and came down on the wrist. Though he stayed in the game, he never looked the same after that. His passes were erratic, some being delivered right on the money, like a third quarter strike to Jauan Jennings, while some missed open receivers by miles. It was what Tennessee fans have come to expect from Guarantano under center, a gritty, tough performance that they could respect, with some good throws, and some frustratingly awful ones. Near the end of the first half, Guarantano made one of those awful throws.
The Vols had the ball courtesy of Bryce Thompson’s third interception and were driving. Tennessee had gotten into the red zone, knowing that a touchdown before the half would likely salt the game away. Guarantano went back to pass and threw a ball over the middle off his back foot. Really, he threw the ball falling away from pressure that hadn’t yet arrived, with neither foot on the ground. He badly underthrew a ball in the endzone to his receiver’s inside shoulder, when the defender had inside position. It was as easy an interception as the Blazers will be gift wrapped all season. That turnover really prompted Guarantano sitting for the first drive of the second half, though he came in for Shrout again in the second drive, which is difficult to explain from a coaching standpoint. Still, Guarantano did come in and manage to feed Jauan Jennings on that drive before hitting Eric Gray in the endzone for the freshman’s first collegiate touchdown. It was a good throw by Guarantano, but the risk from him in the red zone means that the Vols not utilizing a safer, more effective option is strange.
That safer, more effective option for Tennessee near the goal line is to simply put Jauan Jennings at quarterback. Tennessee didn’t have Darnell Wright in this game, and the big freshman right tackle is one of the best run blockers on the roster. Against a solid UAB front, the Vols had success running the ball with Ty Chandler gashing the Blazers on several carries. Tennessee’s committee of running backs had a solid game behind a line that has played much better, despite missing some of the most important pieces. That said, when Tennessee desperately needed red zone success, the solution was a simple one, move Jennings to quarterback and let him fight for the endzone. The Vols have faced a myriad of issues near the goal line this season, but when they have just loaded up all the size they can get on the field and allowed Jennings to fight his way to pay dirt, the results have been effective and safe. Jennings scored again on a tough run, and showed why he should be the go to option for the Vols at the goal line. That, and the fact that he can throw the ball well enough in that role means he is more than a one trick pony. If Tennessee continues to use Jennings, expect to see the former four star quarterback toss a touchdown or two before the season is over.
The short version for the Vols is that the offense wasn’t great, but with two quarterbacks injured, a third in his first start and a musical chairs scenario, a integral piece missing on the line, and red zone struggles aplenty, they were good enough to win thanks to an excellent kicking night by Brent Cimaglia and a superb effort by the defense. Tennessee leaves homecoming with a convincing win over a very solid Group of Five opponent. They also leave homecoming having been able to rest some key players they are likely to need for the stretch run to reach the post season. The Vols have a trip to Lexington coming where they will face a Wildcat team playing good defense and running the ball well, but with an incredibly one-dimensional offense. Tennessee has a chance to reach .500 for the first time this season against the Wildcats, and then get to a bye week after a grueling gauntlet of games. Tennessee moves on from UAB healthier than before the game and with a win. For now, that is a great week.
Senior Recruiting Analyst
Brandon Martin is from the mountains of southeast Tennessee, a proud alumnus of ETSU, and has ended up living in Nashville after stints in Memphis and the Tri-Cities.
Football season takes him all over the Southeast, covering games in the Nashville-Middle Tennessee region, East Tennessee, Memphis-West Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, and Virginia. He covers all things UT with a focus on Recruiting and Tennessee Basketball. If you see him at a game, please, come say hello.