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Tennessee vs. South Carolina: 10 things

Photo: UTSports.com

South Carolina (5-2) traveled to Knoxville on Saturday and dealt Tennessee (3-3) its second consecutive home loss, 15-9. Here are 10 things that stood out about Saturday’s game.

1.) Tennessee’s offensive issue isn’t a quarterback issue.

If there was any doubt, we can now confirm that Tennessee’s offensive woes are more than just quarterback woes. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano didn’t play bad, and looked more promising than junior Quinten Dormady looked through the first five games of the season, and yet the Vols suffered their second consecutive game without an offensive touchdown.

Guarantano was hardly perfect. His pocket awareness isn’t great, his internal quarterback clock is a little slow, and that led to two fumbles late in the fourth quarter. But the Vols lost neither of them, and Guarantano also had no interceptions while completing 11 of 18 passes for 133 yards.

Guarantano’s running ability clearly adds a dimension to Tennessee’s offense that Dormady can’t offer. Guarantano is no Josh Dobbs; he’s too slow. But he’s much more mobile than Dormady and that matters in a read-option offense. He looked his best on the final drive of the game, completing four of five passes to move the Vols to South Carolina’s five-yard-line with 20 seconds to play. Granted, South Carolina was playing a prevent defense, which allowed receivers to actually be open. But the point is that Guarantano actually made good throws most of the game. His pass to Brandon Johnson in the end zone on the game’s final play could’ve been — perhaps should’ve been — caught.

In other words, Guarantano played well enough to win the game. It would’ve been an ugly win, sure. But it’s something to build on.

2.) Ugly offensive line play.

Tennessee’s offensive woes may not be quarterback woes, but there is certainly plenty of blame to go around. Offensive line play has not been great for Tennessee since Jones’ first year, and it has certainly been poor this season. South Carolina clamped down on the Vols’ running game today, particularly in the second half. John Kelly is a terrific back, but he had no running lanes to exploit in the second half. For the day, Kelly had 58 yards on 16 carries. And 24 of those yards came on an electrifying run in the first quarter.

In addition, Guarantano was sacked seven times, despite his mobility.

The single biggest mistake Butch Jones has made during his tenure at Tennessee is not retaining Sam Pittman in Year One. Pittman was one of the few bright spots on Derek Dooley’s coaching staff. He’s gone on to prove himself the SEC’s best offensive line coaches, doing great things at Arkansas before jumping to Georgia, which currently boasts one of the conference’s best offensive lines.

3.) Atrocious red zone play.

Of all Tennessee’s offensive issues — we haven’t yet talked about the receivers’ inability to get separation against press coverage, which is another problem — the single greatest issue might be red zone performance. It’s awful. And much of it revolves round play-calling. The poor red zone play first reared its ugly head against Florida — no point in revisiting that horrid performance and play selection. Tennessee didn’t get a chance to snap the ball inside the red zone against Georgia, but was back to its Florida self against South Carolina.

Tennessee had 17 snaps in the red zone against South Carolina. Let’s break them down:

On the Vols’ first trip to the red zone, there was an incomplete pass, a Guarantano keeper for no gain, and a false start. Three snaps, 0 yards, a net of -5 yards on penalty. Kelly, who did most of the work to get the ball inside the 20, didn’t touch the ball in the red zone. Sound familiar?

On the second trip, there was a complete pass to Ty Chandler for 11 yards, with four yards tacked on after a South Carolina penalty, a Kelly rush for no gain, a Kelly rush for a loss of two, and a Guarantano sack for -10. At least Kelly touched the ball that trip. But the end result was four plays for -1 yard, a net of three yards with the penalty.

On the third trip, there was a Guarantano keeper for six yards, a Kelly run for three yards, a Guarantano sack for -8 yards, a delay of game penalty, and a 13-yard pass from Guarantano to Kelly. Four plays for 14 yards, a net of nine yards after the penalty.

On the fourth trip, at the end of the game, there was an incomplete pass, a nine-yard pass from Guarantano to Marquez Callaway, a pass interference penalty of three yards, and three straight incomplete passes. Six snaps for nine yards, a net of 12 yards after the penalty.

So, to sum it up: three of nine passing for 33 yards, seven carries for -11 yards, two sacks and a total of three plays for lost yardage, and two offensive penalties. And no touchdowns, of course.

4.) A 37-year low.

The last time Tennessee stepped in front of a Neyland Stadium crowd, the Vols suffered their worst home loss in the history of the storied stadium. Saturday’s game against South Carolina was another historic outing for the wrong reason. It marked another game without a touchdown, the first time the Vols have been shut out of the end zone in back-to-back home games in 37 years. The last time it happened was October 1980, when Tennessee lost 27-0 to No. 1 Alabama and 30-6 to No. 12 Pittsburgh.

That’s cringe-worthy. Tennessee’s streak without a touchdown is now at 10 quarters, dating back to the first half of the Massachusetts game on Sept. 23. It’s been 22 days since the Vols scored a touchdown. If they can’t manage a score at Tuscaloosa next week, they’ll roll into the Halloween game at Kentucky with it having been 35 days since they last scored a touchdown.

Want to cringe even more? It has been 511 hours — or 30,695 minutes — since Tennessee last scored a touchdown. And counting.

5.) First half defense.

Tennessee held South Carolina to 26 yards of offense in the first quarter, and to 104 yards of offense in the first half. The Gamecocks were 0 of 5 on third down in the first half.

All things considered, it wasn’t a bad day for the Vols’ defense. Tennessee gave up just one touchdown, marking just the second time that’s happened to South Carolina’s offense this season. In fact, if you had been told coming in that the Gamecocks would score only a single touchdown, you would’ve had to think that Tennessee would win the game. Unfortunately for Tennessee, South Carolina’s field goal game clicked today. Only five of 14 coming in, the Gamecocks were three of three on field goal tries today.

The defensive effort was especially good in the first half. We’ve seen times this season when Tennessee’s defense has played well early (that was true against Georgia two weeks ago) before wearing down as the game progressed. The same happened to some extent today, after the offense stalled in the second half. But, bottom line? Tennessee’s defense played well enough to win the game today. This isn’t where we thought we would be after the second half of last season and the Georgia Tech game to open this season. But Bob Shoop’s unit hasn’t been without promise at times.

6.) Halftime adjustments.

Butch Jones was right to say in the postgame that today’s game was a “tale of two halves.” But that isn’t a flattering look for him, which begs the question of why he would mention it to start with. The adjustments were all in South Carolina’s favor, and Will Muschamp said as much.

Offensively, Tennessee had 178 yards in the first half. In the second half, the Vols had a grand total of -6 yards until the game’s final possession.

Defensively, Tennessee limited South Carolina to 104 yards and 0-5 third downs in the first half. But South Carolina had 219 yards and was 5-8 on third downs in the second half. Leading 9-3 in the third quarter, Tennessee backed up South Carolina to the five-yard-line with a punt, then saw the Gamecocks suffer through a couple of false start penalties that backed up the ball to the three. The end result? A 12-play, 95-yard drive to tie the game on a 20-yard touchdown run. On the next possession, South Carolina chewed more than nine minutes off the clock, driving 72 yards in 16 plays before kicking the go-ahead field goal.

Great offenses are able to chew up that much clock by imposing their will on you. South Carolina’s offense is hardly “great.” But the Gamecocks made the right adjustments.

7.) Clock management.

With 43 seconds remaining in the first half, and Tennessee facing third and goal at South Carolina’s 14-yard-line, the Vols were slapped with a delay of game penalty, despite having all three of their time outs remaining. The five-yard penalty backed the ball up to the 19. On the next play, a 13-yard completion left the Vols stranded at South Carolina’s six-yard-line — not close enough to go for the end zone on fourth down — and resulted in a field goal try.

That was a head-scratcher, but not as much as a second time management snafu that followed in the fourth quarter. That time, when Tennessee reached South Carolina’s five-yard-line on a Guarantano-to-Callaway pass with 20 seconds remaining, the Vols did not have any time outs.

Inexplicably, Tennessee called a play at the line rather than rushing the snap and spiking the ball to kill the clock. The result? Eleven seconds ticked off before Guarantano was able to throw the ball away under duress. Jones defended the decision to not spike the ball in his postgame presser, saying it had no bearing on the outcome of the game.

Sorry, Coach. It did.

8.) Props to Jake Bentley.

After Tennessee’s last-gasp effort came up short from South Carolina’s two-yard-line as time expired, it was easy to focus on the ugly: the Gamecock players who were taunting the remaining crowd at Neyland Stadium. But the more noteworthy reaction was that of South Carolina’s sophomore quarterback, Jake Bentley.

Bentley was crossing the field when he noticed Tennessee’s Guarantano, despondent after the incomplete pass. Bentley approached Guarantano and . . . well, just watch:

9.) 0 for Muschamp

Want to feel worse about Tennessee’s loss to South Carolina? Gamecock coach Will Muschamp is now 6-0 against Tennessee, including 4-0 at Florida and 2-0 at South Carolina. (He’s 4-0 against Butch Jones.)

How is a coach who could only win four games in a season with Florida’s talent 6-0 against Tennessee? South Carolina’s 5-2 start to this season doesn’t cause me to reconsider my evaluation of Muschamp because the Gamecocks have yet to beat anyone of consequence and nearly lost to Louisiana Tech. Muschamp, meanwhile, is 39-30 as a head coach. And if you remove Tennessee, he’s just 33-30. Ouch.

And do you want to know what’s weird? In the Tennessee-South Carolina series, Butch Jones is undefeated (3-0) against Steve Spurrier and winless (0-2) against Muschamp.

10.) Taking and giving blame.

After today’s game, Jarrett Guarantano faced the media and accepted responsibility for the loss. It was a mature move for a 19-year-old redshirt freshman, especially one who was ostracized for what some viewed as poor body language on the sideline against Georgia Tech in the season opener . . . and especially considering that the loss was really not Guarantano’s fault.

Guarantano wasn’t the only one placing blame. His head coach placed the blame on him, as well.

To be fair, Butch Jones said he was “encouraged” with how Guarantano played, and said he “made some plays with his legs” and “showed poise” on the Vols’ last drive.

But, according to SEC Country’s recap of Jones’ post-game press conference, the coach had this to say about the game’s final play: “We thought about giving the ball to John Kelly. We liked our call and Jarrett just didn’t execute. It hurts, it stings.”

Guarantano’s throw may not have been the wisest option, but it appeared to go through the hands of his intended receiver. It’s questionable whether Tennessee should have run the ball with Kelly on the final play. There’s an argument to be made either way. But for Jones to throw Guarantano under the bus for a play where a fair share of folks are going to question the play call . . . that’s just odd.

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