Ten takeaways from Tennessee’s 42-7 win over Indiana State on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017.
1.) It was a good day for the reserves.
Tennessee was expected to put Indiana State away early and then empty the bench, resting starters who needed it after a grueling, two-overtime game against Georgia Tech just five days earlier, and getting valuable experience for reserve players.
As it turned out, the Vols didn’t put the Sycamores away until late in the third quarter. But that was a bit deceiving, as quite a few younger players got into the game much sooner than that. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano played a couple of series in the first half, sophomore runningback Carlos Fils-aime scored two touchdowns, freshman defensive end Deandre Johnson forced a fumble, sophomore wide receiver Brandon Johnson caught a touchdown pass, Guarantano returned in the fourth quarter to throw a touchdown pass (to fifth-year senior Jeff George), and on and on it went.
It wasn’t the prettiest of wins for the Vols (more on that later), but it was a productive day.
2.) No quarterback controversay
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones promised to play both of his quarterbacks during Saturday’s game. He had said both would play against Georgia Tech, then caught some flack when Guarantano never entered the game. When he promised both would play against the Sycamores, some assumed Jones knew his team would blow the game open early, giving him ample opportunity to insert Guarantano in relief of junior Quinten Dormady.
As it turned out, Jones meant exactly what he said, and he played Guarantano a couple of series in the first half, as soon as the Vols’ scored their first offensive touchdown. Guarantano was in for two possessions with the score 14-0.
What did we learn? Exactly what we thought we knew coming in to Saturday’s game: Dormady is the clear-cut starter. Neither quarterback played perfect, by any means. But Dormady was the better of the two.
Dormady had some overthrows early (he twice had freshman Josh Palmer open for what might have been touchdowns but put too much on his passes) but finished well through the air, completing 13 of 18 passes for 194 yards and a couple of touchdowns.
Unfortunately, Dormady also had a couple of turnovers. He was stripped of the ball on a sack in the third quarter, which gave Indiana State a short field and led to the Sycamores’ only touchdown of the night, and on the next possession threw an interception in the end zone. He also mishandled a snap that could’ve easily resulted in a turnover against a better team.
But Guarantano also had some inaccurate throws, and his misses were much worse than Dormady’s. Guarantano finished four of 12 for 41 yards and a touchdown. He did play much better in the second half, as he seemed to settle down. He looks like a serviceable quarterback . . . just not as good as Dormady at this juncture.
3.) No-show line
Tennessee’s offensive line play was abysmal in the first half of the Vols’ win over Georgia Tech, and it was bad again tonight against an FCS opponent. The Vols finished with 160 yards on 37 carries — an average of 4.3 yards per attempt. That’s not good enough against an opponent of Indiana State’s caliber.
Furthermore, Dormady and Guarantano were hurried too often in passing situations.
Indiana had seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage — too many for a middle-of-the-pack FCS foe. Florida’s excellent defensive front must be licking their chops in anticipation of the Vols’ arrival in Gainesville next weekend.
4.) Suspect defense
Tennessee’s defense was much-maligned in the season-opener against Georgia Tech. It’s hard to gauge progress against an opponent like Indiana State, but a few things stood out. For one, Tennessee was unable to set the edge on too many occasions. Clearly, Indiana State knew the perimeter was the Vols’ weakness and was bound and determined to exploit it. They attacked the edge over and over — and it worked too often, considering the quality of the opponent.
Granted, Indiana State finished with only 215 yards of offense. But that’s only about 63 fewer than the Sycamores had against FCS’s Eastern Illinois last week. And, until late in the game, Indiana State actually had more rushing yards than Tennessee. (The Sycamores finished with 122 yards on the ground.)
Sophomore linebacker Daniel Bituli continued to play well for Tennessee. His five tackles against Indiana State were far fewer than the 23 he had against Georgia Tech, but the Nashville native just seems to have a nose for the football. Overall, unfortunately, Tennessee’s linebackers did not play well.
Here’s a standout stat about Tennessee’s defense: the Vols have only one sack in the first two games of the season.
5.) Third downs were exceptional
With the above in mind, Tennessee’s third down defense was simply exceptional against Indiana State. After allowing Georgia Tech to convert 10 of its first 13 third downs five days earlier, the Vols did not allow the Sycamores to convert a single third down. Indiana State was 0 of 11 on third down. That’s remarkable. And not all of those were third-and-long situations. When Tennessee needed to bow its back, the Vols did just that.
6.) Special teams were special
Okay, so Tennessee’s punt return team committed penalties two of the first three times they were on the field. But that was the only setback on special teams. Freshman Ty Chandler took the opening kickoff 91 yards for a score to set the tone for the night, sophomore Marquez Callaway averaged 13 yards per return on four punt returns and always seems to be a threat to break one, six of Tennessee’s seven kickoffs went for touchbacks, and Trevor Daniel had another banner night punting the ball. On four kicks, he averaged 47.8 yards per punt, pinned two inside the 20 and had a long of 59. That’s getting it done.
7.) Trash can MIA
Butch Jones scoffed at the scorn his staff received from the trash can gimmick — ESPN was eager to zone in on the trashcan roaming the sideline last week, with Team 121 emblazoned on it. The message? Cleaning up the trash. When the Vols record a turnover, the player responsible for the take-away puts the ball in the trash when he gets back to the sideline.
Jones’ take was, what’s the big deal? We’ve been doing that since last season! Be that as it may, the trash can did not make an appearance at Saturday’s game against Indiana State. Do you think Jones got the message?
Perhaps coincidentally — or perhaps not — the Vols did not force a turnover against Indiana State, after two takeaways against Georgia Tech. Hmmm?
8.) Excellent crowd
Attendance for Saturday’s home opener was announced at 99,015. It was a slow-arriving crowd, but once every butt was in a seat, it was a nice crowd for an FCS opponent, even if it was the season’s first home game. It was just a little over 3,000 folks shy of a sellout, and the crowd was loud on occasion — particularly when Ty Chandler housed the opening kickoff. The noise appeared to affect Indiana State at times. The Sycamores burned through all six of their time outs, and five appeared to be at least partially due to the noise. Saturday’s crowd was the biggest an Indiana State team had ever played in front of. The previous record was around 96,000, at Penn State.
9.) Callaway covered up
If you think the emergence of Marquez Callaway as a playmaker can offset the loss of Jauan Jennings — who is apparently out for the season with a wrist injury — Saturday’s game was a lesson learned. Callaway, who had a coming out party against Georgia Tech, with four catches and a couple of touchdowns, was largely MIA against Indiana State. With Jennings, the Vols’ most experienced and talented receiver, not available, the Sycamores could focus much more intently on Callaway.
Callaway did break open in the third quarter for a 37-yard touchdown catch, and he did a nice job on the play. But that was the only time he was targeted. And if an FCS opponent can cover up Callaway that effectively, what can SEC defenses — like Florida’s — do?
Getting Josh Smith back from injury will help. Smith dressed for Saturday’s game but did not play.
10.) Shy Tuttle appears
Defensive lineman Shy Tuttle was one of 42 Tennessee reserves that participated in Saturday’s game. Tuttle, who missed the second half of the 2015 season after suffering a broken leg in a cheap shot at Georgia, and missed the final five games of the 2016 season with yet another season-ending injury, was making his return from that latter injury when he appeared briefly against the Sycamores.
Tuttle didn’t play much in Saturday’s game, and did not get in on any stops. But it’s been a rough go for the former five-star recruit, and Tennessee fans obviously hope they’ll see much more of the Midway, N.C., product in the weeks and months ahead.