Rapid Reaction: Will Grier, West Virginia dominate Tennessee, spoil Jeremy Pruitt's coaching debut
As opening acts go, Jeremy Pruitt’s predecessors had it much, much easier.
No. 17 West Virginia was no Austin Peay, UT-Martin or Western Kentucky.
As head coaches go, Volunteers fans can only hope that the rest of Pruitt’s tenure doesn’t follow the likes of Butch Jones, Derek Dooley or Lane Kiffin. Those three dominated their Tennessee coaching debut against those respective lightweights — but little else.
Pruitt’s challenge Saturday was considerably stiffer: a ranked Mountaineers team led by a Heisman Trophy candidate in Will Grier who just happened to be playing in his hometown.
Tennessee hadn’t beaten a ranked team since early 2016, when the Vols toppled No. 19 Florida and No. 25 Georgia in consecutive weeks. That’s part of the reason Pruitt was on the sideline Saturday in Charlotte, N.C., his first time as a college head coach.
It didn’t take long to realize the Vols’ wait will continue. Grier threw for 429 yards and 5 touchdowns as West Virginia shook off a sluggish first half to spoil Pruitt’s debut 40-14.
The first play of the Pruitt era was, well, it was forgettable and a reminder of just how big this rebuild is. Jarrett Guarantano, who won the QB battle against Keller Chryst, was hit immediately on a spin-and-throw bubble screen. His throw went backward, resulting in a 10-yard loss.
First play for the Vols this season. Ouch. pic.twitter.com/FI3nFT5VW6
— Belle Es You (@SouthernbeLLSU) September 1, 2018
His next pass was incomplete, and the 3rd-and-20 run lost 4. The Vols lost ground, but not hope.
They kept Grier out of the end zone on his first drive, but he hit T.J. Simmons for a 59-yard touchdown on West Virginia’s next possession to to make it 10-0.
Just as it appeared West Virginia might run away, Tennessee responded.
Guarantano settled down, and Tim Jordan, an unheralded 3-star prospect who took over for an injured Ty Chandler, kept running, even when running lanes were nowhere to be found.
The Vols pieced together a 17-play, 78-yard drive that consumed almost 9 minutes. It was the Vols’ longest drive in two years. Do the math: They averaged 4.5 yards per play, but it resulted in 7 critical points. What it lacked in magic, it more than delivered in moxie.
Pruitt put his stamp on it, too.
On 4th-and-goal from just outside the 1, Pruitt called timeout. The Vols had been stuffed on the three previous plays. This time, Guarantano faked another handoff and hit Dominick Wood-Anderson for the first touchdown of the Pruitt era.
Two more defensive stands, aided by a couple of Grier misfires, allowed Tennessee to sneak into halftime trailing only 13-7. All things considered — the opponent, the woeful start, losing Ty Chandler early — there were reasons for Vols fans to be encouraged.
Then, after an extended halftime weather delay, Grier spent the next 30 minutes giving them reasons to head for the exits.
He sealed West Virginia’s opening drive of the third quarter with a perfect pitch to David Sills V for a 33-yard touchdown. His second TD pass made it 20-7.
After WVU forced a 3-and-out, Grier resumed his aerial assault. His third touchdown pass — a 28-yard strike to Gary Jennings — came three plays after Marcus Sims dropped what would have been a 40-yard touchdown pass.
Tennessee answered with a scoring drive, which ended with Jordan’s 4-yard touchdown run, but Grier responded with his 4th touchdown toss, the easiest of the day, a 14-yarder to an uncovered Kennedy McCoy in the flats to make it 33-14. His fifth TD pass came after a Tennessee penalty.
Saturday was Tennessee’s fourth loss in a row, dating to last season, but this felt different. Guarantano played better, if not dominant. Jordan topped 100 yards.
There will be better days. Saturday figured to be a rough one. Grier, looking every bit like a Heisman candidate, ensured it was.