What we saw Saturday afternoon was evidence of evolution.
I’m not talking about Darwin stuff here, folks. I’m talking about a more germane topic: Tennessee football.
In Knoxville this past Saturday, the Vols undressed and blew out South Carolina 41-21. They did it with presumed starter Brian Maurer on the shelf because of concussion protocol. They did it with much-maligned, second-team quarterback Jarrett Guarantano leaving the game with a broken wrist after throwing a touchdown.
By the way, JG had surgery on his wrist Sunday morning.
The Vols did it without defensive tackle Darel Middleton, who was ejected for a targeting foul. They did it despite numerous bad calls that went against them. These Vols swam upstream for much of the first half, yet kept battling, kept fighting and put it all together.
And they finally got the Muschamp monkey off their back.
It didn’t seem to matter who they threw to the Lions at quarterback. Before he got hurt, Guarantano was having a career day. He was 11-19 for 229 yards with two TDs, no picks and no sacks. He played well against what some believe is an elite defensive front.
When Guarantano left the game, J.T. Shrout was the next man up. What did he do? Tossed a 55-yard TD strike to Marquez Callaway. Shrout was 7-11 for 122 yards. This was encouraging.
Juaun Jennings showed true leadership with seven catches for 174 yards and a pair of scores. Callaway had three grabs for 102. The receivers showed up. Special teams were big. Callaway returned a punt for a 65-yard TD. Daniel Bituli blocked a punt and covered it for a touchdown.
The offensive and defensive lines have made great strides as the season has progressed. UT’s offense had 485 total yards while SC was limited to just 78 yards on the ground. Gamecock quarterback Ryan Hilinski threw for 319 yards, but was sacked three times.
Gen. Neyland’s Game Maxims were on full display Saturday. Tennessee made fewer mistakes and won the game. Tennessee made breaks for itself … and scored. The breaks went against UT and the Vols just put on more steam. The Vols protected the quarterback, the kicker, the ball and the game. They gang tackled and pursued. They pressed the kicking game and made two breaks that earned 14 points. They carried the fight to South Carolina for 60 minutes.
Check all the boxes and this was a thorough whipping of a team that beat then No. 3 Georgia in Athens and pressed No. 7 Florida in Columbia for three-and-a-half quarters.
Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt cautioned Vol Nation in pre-season that the Vols were a work in progress, that guys who probably weren’t going to be ready to play as the season started would be ready by Week 4 or so.
We’re seeing that now. For Tennessee Saturday, it was all hands on deck. And all hands played a major role. Just imagine how bad the score would have been had Tennessee not come up empty in two red-zone trips. It might have put 50 on the board.
This effort sort of made the Big Orange faithful forget a bit the embarrassing loss to Georgia State and that 0-2 start. The Vols have four games left and all are winnable. And if they do win all four games, guess who finishes third in the SEC East this year at 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the league? What if that same team wins its bowl game and finishes with an 8-5 mark?
Big Orange fans would be elated with that, given their team’s ignominious start. But at least, for one day this fall, Tennessee fans felt good about the Big Orange.
On Oct. 26, 2019, that‘s all they wanted feel.
Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and host of The Pressbox, which airs 4-6 p.m. Monday-Thursday on WRJB 95.9 FM, Camden, Tenn.