In a season of disappointments, Tennessee couldn’t muster one late season bright spot. The Vols will miss a bowl for the first time four seasons after losing their seventh game of the season to LSU on Saturday night in a rain-soaked Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee Game Grades LSU Edition
Tennessee was lucky to get ten points. Were it not for three long pass completions — that were honestly aided by LSU player breakdowns — Tennessee’s offensive performance would have likely resulted in zero points.
Offensive Stat of the Game: 38 yards of rushing.
Tennessee was very, very limited at the quarterback position. With Quinten Dormady out for the season and Will McBride out for this game, there was no scholarship quarterback dressed to back-up Jarrett Guarantano. Guarantano was clearly on a no-run order from the coaching staff. After two sacks in the first quarter, Guarantano’s only passing attempts were screens or straight go-routes. In Tennessee’s one red zone attempt, Guarantano was not on the same page as his receivers.
Running Backs: B-
The running back unit rebounded from a listless Missouri effort with a passing grade effort. As was the theme for the evening, they couldn’t do much because of the ineffectiveness of the offensive line. But they kept pounding it. On a few occasions the effort gave Tennessee some momentum. John Kelly’s stat line wasn’t eye-popping (47 yards on 25 rushes), but he kept the LSU defense focused on him. A little more freedom from the quarterback position and his effort might have seen more
When given the opportunity, the receivers made some big plays tonight. Marquez Callaway had two first half receptions, including a touchdown, and Jeff George had a 60-yard reception on the last play of the third quarter. None of those passes were particularly well thrown; both Callaway and George made the plays. It makes you wonder why Tennessee hasn’t thrown the ball in the vertical passing game more this season and let their tall, athletic receivers make some plays.
Offensive Line: F
Not much you can say when you cannot convert 4th and inches inside your own 20-yard line. Yes, the offensive line is decimated with injuries. But this is the SEC. You can’t hide behind excuses. You’ve got to be able to get three inches when your team absolutely needs it the most.
Fittingly, on Tennessee’s first snap in the red zone (also the first snap of the fourth quarter), center Ryan Johnson had another bad snap. Tennessee has had an errant snap in every single game this season.
Tennessee’s line just couldn’t produce anything when it mattered the most.
It was the same song for over-worked Tennessee defense on Saturday. After a strong start, and periods of quality play, the defense couldn’t overcome special teams miscues and offensive ineptitude. LSU’s average starting field position was near mid-field. Tennessee turned the ball over inside their own 20-yard line twice. And the Vols offense only managed ten total first downs.
Against a team as physical as LSU, with the injuries that Tennessee has, you cannot put your defense in that position.
Defensive Stat of the Game: 5.0 yards per rushing attempt.
Defensive Line: C
No unit displayed a different demeanor after the coaching change than the defensive line. Even though the Vols defense gave up 203 yards rushing, the defensive line still had a passing grade. They produced some pressure on Etling, limiting LSU’s passing attack. And they held their ground against LSU’s interior rushing game. LSU’s success came largely on the outside — jet sweeps, speed options, and off-tackle. Those aren’t the line’s responsibilities.
So if the defense got a passing grade, and LSU had 203 yards of rushing, where was the disconnect? It was in the linebacking corps. Particularly with accounting for Danny Etling. Etling didn’t have huge rushing numbers, but he had two key first downs to continue drives and a touchdown rush as well. Daniel Bituli was caught inside on LSU’s jet sweet touchdown as well. Dealing just with Guice, the linebackers were decent. It was everyone else that they couldn’t account for.
Defensive Backs: B-
The defensive secondary wasn’t asked to play much pass defense. LSU quarterback Danny Etling only had 81 yards passing. But they did defend when necessary, notwithstanding Shaq Wiggins’ interference call late in the fourth quarter. They provided good coverage on the short passes, particularly early. Nigel Warrior continues to be the stand out in the secondary.
Special Teams: F
This was the worst special teams performance of the season. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time. With a resurgent, positive attitude, this team needed every bit of assistance it could get. Marquez Callaway’s two fumbled punt receptions in the first half gave LSU the ball inside the red zone twice. That resulted in 10 points. More importantly, it prevented Tennessee from building momentum early. With an offense struggling like Tennessee’s is, you cannot spot the opponent 10 points. Especially a team with a defense as good as LSU.
Tennessee’s kickoff return team botched the opening kickoff of the second half, as well. Granted, the weather was atrocious, but the kickoff return is the easiest aspect of special teams. You have time, you have space, and you have plenty of people back. This resulted in a wasted possession for the Vols to open the second half.
Tennessee had horrible field position all game, and it was due to the poor special teams play.
Additionally, Aaron Medley missed a very makeable field goal in the first half as well.
With not much to lose, the decision to keep Guarantano protected is questionable. And while fans can appreciate the play calling with abandon (fourth down play inside your own 20-yard line, two trick plays in the red zone), they stunted any momentum that Tennessee’s offense was building. And certainly you want to keep the running game established, they may have over-relied on the running backs.
It’s just one game, but there was a noticeable difference in the team tonight. That’s hard to do in one week. Especially in a week with so much turmoil in Knoxville. In addition to the coaching change, there’s the constant discussion about finishing the season needing at least one more win to avoid an 8-loss season, the possibility of getting two wins to get to a bowl, and the constant conversation about the coaching search. The #Grumors.
Next week, Tennessee will play the final game of the season at home against Vanderbilt. It’ll be a game between two teams with no chance for bowl eligibility. Two teams ending disappointing seasons.
But for Tennessee fans, they know how important this game is. Tennessee is a proud program, and they’ve never lost eight games in one season. The 2017 campaign has been a nightmare, with too many disappointments to count. The only redemption yet to be found would be a season finale win against an in-state rival to preserve one of the program-defining statistics of this proud program.
Embed from Getty Images