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Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech: 10 things

Photo: UTSports.com

1.) Marquez Callaway. This guy didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. He was the No. 3 wide receiver in the country, as ranked by Rivals.com, coming out of high school last year, and the No. 98 player overall in the Rivals100. Still, he sorta came out of nowhere in this game. No one expected much out of Callaway against Georgia Tech. He was listed behind freshmen Josh Palmer and Latrell Williams on the depth chart, backing up Jauan Jennings. But when Jennings left the game in the first half, Callaway stepped up. And, boy, did he ever deliver. He was targeted four times, and made four catches that included two touchdowns — on a night when Tennessee’s receivers weren’t doing much to bail out a young quarterback who was making his first collegiate start. If UT fans didn’t know who Marquez Callaway was when the evening began, they certainly do now.

2.) John Kelly. I was impressed with John Kelly from the first time I saw him in an open practice at Tennessee. Even before he was called upon to play a big role in the latter half of last season, I was convinced in his ability. He reminds me a lot of Tony Thompson. When Chuck Webb and Reggie Cobb went out unexpectedly in 1990, the unheralded Thompson came on to lead the SEC in rushing and lead Tennessee to a conference championship and a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia. So when Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd are gone, why not John Kelly? This junior was hardly a heralded recruit coming out of Oak Park, Mich. He was listed as a 3-star recruit by Rivals.com — the nation’s No. 29 runningback overall in the Class of 2015. Clearly, he’s better than that. He and Callaway were the primary reasons for Tennessee’s win tonight. (Kelly, by the way, finished with 128 yards and four touchdowns on 19 carries.)

3.) Forget the dualing quarterbacks idea. Butch Jones said before the game began that both Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano would play if the opportunity presented itself. It certainly appeared that it presented itself early, when Dormady got off to an incredibly shaky start. Dormady completed his first pass, then hit on just one of his next eight, for a two-of-nine start. He settled down a bit before the half, but was still just seven of 18 at halftime. Credit Jones, though. He stuck with his young quarterback even when a plurality of fans would’ve begged him to do the opposite if they had his ear. And it paid off. Dormady settled in for a nice second half. He finished 20 of 37 for 221 yards and a couple of touchdowns, and stayed calm under pressure as he rallied his team from 14 down. Clearly, Tennessee has its starter at quarterback. And judging from Guarantano’s body language on the sideline, he knows it. The good news for him? He’ll get some opportunity to play in the second half of Saturday’s game against Indiana State.

4.) So a win — especially a thrilling, come-from-behind, double-overtime win — changes the narrative of a game just a bit. But that doesn’t mean all of the Vols’ shortcomings on this night are excused, and we’re gonna talk about a few of them. Let’s start with Tennessee’s rush defense. It was atrocious. I’m not sure what was going on schematically with the Vols’ decision to line up a yard from the line of scrimmage, but it obviously didn’t work. Of course we’ve heard a lot about how the spread option (wishbone option, whatever you want to call it) is tough to defend. It is. So let’s establish that up front. Georgia Tech last year averaged 256 yards per game on the ground. Pretty good; in fact, good enough to be ranked No. 8 nationally in rushing offense. The year before that, the Rambling Wreck was even better: 299 yards per game on the ground, and a No. 6 national ranking in that category. But in Monday’s game, Georgia Tech rushed for a whopping 535 yards — the most Tennessee has ever given up to anyone in 121 years of football. There have been teams that have rushed for 500+ yards before, but I’m going to guess that tonight marked the first time a team has rushed for 500+ yards and still lost the game. Aside from the first two series of the game, the only times Georgia Tech was stopped was on a pair of fumbles, when quarterback TaQuon Marshall left the game with an injury, and on an illegal block penalty.

5.) Sometimes Butch Jones just makes you scratch your head. Case in point: With eight minutes to go in the game, Tennessee had gotten the ball back, trailing 28-21. Marquez Gallaway had just scored on a 50-yard touchdown after a beautiful spin move. Two incredible things happened. One, with the Vols’ defense clearly needing a chance to catch their breath, Tennessee did not run the ball. Not once. Two, Gallaway was not in the game. Result: Three-and-out. Another case in point: With the clock winding down at the end of regulation, Georgia Tech found itself on the Tennessee side of the field with one time out remaining. The play clock was winding down and it appeared the Yellow Jackets would have to use their final time out to avoid a delay of game penalty. Instead, Tennessee took a time out. That saved Paul Johnson his final time out to set up his final field goal try.

6.) Can we go ahead and ditch that stupid trash can? It’s embarrassing. If there’s one word that sums up Butch Jones’ entire era in Knoxville, it’s the word “gimmick.” Too much gimmick football.

7.) TaQuon Marshall had three major scholarship offers coming out of high school: Georgia Tech, Cincinnati and Duke. He wasn’t even ranked by Rivals, and the rest of his offers came from Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Jacksonville State, Kennesaw State, Marshall, UMass and Wofford. Yet Marshall was a one-man wrecking crew tonight. He carried the ball 44 times for 249 yards and five touchdowns. Those are Heisman-like numbers against Tennessee’s defense.

8.) The officials didn’t necessarily have a great game tonight. They missed an obvious hold on the edge on Georgia Tech’s final touchdown of regulation, and another obvious hold at the goal line on the Yellow Jackets’ touchdown in second overtime. (ESPN commentator Kirk Herbstreit called both of them “great blocks,” which is hilarious. The video speaks for itself.) There was also a very blatant block in the back that was missed near the end of regulation, which set up Georgia Tech’s final field goal try. Butch Jones was livid, and he should’ve been.

9.) If I were Paul Johnson, I’d have gone for two in the second overtime, too. In fact, we were discussing it before the drive even began. I said, “If it were me, and they score, I’d go for the two-point conversion because Tennessee can’t stop them.” How many times did Tennessee make a stop at the line of scrimmage after the first couple of series in the first quarter? There was no reason to think that Tennessee was going to stop that play. It’s easy to second-guess, but hindsight is always perfect. I’d have done the same thing Johnson did.

10.) I don’t cut Butch Jones much slack on his cliches, but he was right about one thing: his team’s will to win. (And to make sure the point hit home, he repeated it about five times in his ESPN postgame interview.) Tennessee appeared listless and disinterested for much of the first three quarters, but kept battling back late in the game. Players made plays when it mattered. Rashaan Gaulden forced a fumble with a gutsy play when it appeared Georgia Tech was about to score to salt the game away (then Micah Abernathy hustled downfield to recover it). Paul Blain blocked the field goal try at the end of regulation. And, then, biggest of all, Darrell Taylor stepping up and stuffing Marshall on the two-point conversion try in the second overtime.

I don’t know where Tennessee goes from here. Well, in the short-term the Vols are going to beat the dog-snot out of Indiana State on Saturday. That’s easy enough. But what happens when they travel to Gainesville the week after that? I don’t know. There were major concerns that were exposed on defense tonight, the offensive line play was disappointing, the receivers dropped too many balls, preparation seemed to be lacking, adjustments seemed to be lacking. When it appeared that this game was going to end as a Georgia Tech win, there was plenty of blame to go around, to players and coaches alike.

The point I made prior to the start of the season was that Butch Jones had to win this game to save his job. But winning this game along wouldn’t save it. This was a much-to-lose, little-to-gain game for Tennessee. Frankly, Georgia Tech should not have been in a position to win late in the fourth quarter.

So it isn’t as though you could just gloss over all of those concerns from the first and second quarter. Nine more feet at the end of the game, or take away the fourth quarter fumble forced by Gaulden, or Paul Bain’s big mitt at the end of regulation, or change the outcome of a half-dozen other plays, and the storyline tonight is Butch Jones’ job security.

But a win is still a win, and winning by a point in overtime on a night that saw you forced to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat is still a lot more enjoyable than a loss. And there were bright spots, particularly the play of Kelly, Callaway and even Quinten Dormady. And there was that will to win. Until Saturday, those are things to build on.

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