KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Forget a quarterback controversy at Tennessee. Just about everyone was ready for dueling QBs during the Vols’ 42-41 win over Georgia Tech Monday evening . . . everyone except head coach Butch Jones and offensive coordinator Larry Scott.
Junior Quinten Dormady went wire-to-wire in the Vols’ overtime win, completing 20 of 37 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns. He had some errant throws and poor decisions, but he also didn’t receive a lot of help from his wide receivers — apart, of course, from Marquez Callaway. Tennessee had several dropped balls in the first half.
It’s safe to say that Dormady will start in Saturday’s home opener, as No. 21 Tennessee gets set to host FCS foe Indiana State. If things go as the Vols hope, redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano will get plenty of playing time in the second half, but the starting job is Dormady’s to lose.
Indiana State, though, very much does have a quarterback controversy — with no good option to turn to, if Thursday’s opener against Eastern Illinois was any indication.
The Sycamores started junior Isaac Harker, then benched him late in the first half in favor of redshirt freshman Cade Sparks. Neither quarterback performed well; they combined to complete seven of 19 passes for 133 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
Harker is a returning starter at quarterback. He started 10 games as a sophomore, and finished with Honorable Mention All-Missouri Valley Conference honors after passing for 2,559 yards and 19 touchdowns.
But Harker had a rough first half against Eastern Illinois, completing just four of 10 passes for 38 yards. He did engineer a touchdown drive in the first quarter, putting his team ahead 7-0. But he threw a pick-six on the Sycamores’ next possession and three more drives ended in punts, two of them three-and-outs, before he was pulled from the game. He completed just two of five passes during that stretch.
With Sparks under center, the Sycamores were able to make a game of it in the second half, but Sparks didn’t look particularly sharp, either. He completed just three of nine passes, and also had an interception returned for a touchdown, though it was waved off due to a penalty on Eastern Illinois. Sparks did have a 43-yard pass completion and finished with 95 yards through the air.
As Indiana State began its preparation for Tennessee this week, it listed both Sparks and Harker as potential starters on its depth chart, and both have seen practice time with the team’s starters on offense.
A shaky opponent
Tennessee is continuing a growing trend among Power 5 schools by placing an FCS foe on the schedule. But as FCS opponents go, Indiana State is not a particularly strong one. The Sycamores finished last season with a 4-7 record. They haven’t had a winning season since 2014, when they finished 8-4 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs before losing to Chattanooga.
In its only game against an FBS opponent last season, Indiana State gave up 58 points to Minnesota. The Gophers led 38-7 at halftime before calling off the dogs and cruising to a 58-28 win.
So what do the Sycamores do well? They weren’t bad defensively against Eastern Illinois, giving up only 278 yards of offense, including just 76 on the ground. LeMonte Booker is a capable runningback. The fifth-year senior — who missed all of last season with an injury — had 154 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries against Eastern Illinois. Using Booker, the Sycamores will undoubtedly look to exploit Tennessee’s weakness on defense. The Vols had difficulty stopping the run last season, and gave up a school-record 535 rushing yards to Georgia Tech.
Ultimately, though, Indiana State will most likely struggle to slow down John Kelly and Tennessee’s offense. The Sycamores gave up 45 points to Missouri State last season, 41 to North Dakota State, 39 to Northern Iowa and 36 to Western Illinois, in addition to the 58 they surrendered to Minnesota.
Indiana State has not won a road-opener since beating Louisville in 1984, and could potentially face the largest crowd the program has ever seen. The current record is 96,461 at Penn State in 2011.
The Sycamores are playing an SEC team for the first time since 1995, when they lost at Ole Miss, 56-10. Indiana State has defeated five FBS programs over the years, but none since 1987.