Tennessee began the 2017 campaign much like it did the one from a year ago, testing their fans’ precious tickers with yet another heart-stopper.
The Volunteers didn’t take their first lead until double overtime and somehow managed to survive a Georgia Tech rushing attack that gashed them from the opening kickoff up until the game’s final play. Only then did their defense make a stop.
Yellow Jackets quarterback TaQuon Marshall, who set school records at his position with 44 carries for 249 yards, finally made a poor decision operating coach Paul Johnson’s triple-option system and was stuffed on a two-point conversion that would’ve been the game-winner. Instead, UT escaped Monday with a 42-41 victory that defies all logical explanation.
Marshall was nothing short of sensational up until that snap, running for 5 touchdowns and frustrating the Vols at every turn.
According to the box score, Tech rushed for a stunning 535 yards on a ridiculous 86 attempts and held the ball for 41:27 of the contest’s 60 minutes in regulation. It was a clinic on how to operate Johnson’s death-by-a-thousand-cuts scheme.
However, the Jackets coughed up a pair of fumbles, the second of which robbed them of an opportunity to make it a two-score game late in the fourth quarter. On top of that, their bend-but-don’t-break defense eventually broke, as new stars for a relatively anonymous Tennessee offense emerged from the shadows right in the nick of time.
Quarterback Quinten Dormady, who averaged a measly 2.6 yards per pass in the first half, finished 20-of-37 for 221 yards with 2 TDs and 0 interceptions.
Running back John Kelly flashed at times in 2016 as the third-stringer behind Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, but he announced himself as one of the best ball carriers in the SEC with 128 yards and 4 monster scores on 19 rushes.
Perhaps the most unlikely hero was wideout Marquez Callaway, who caught 4 passes for 110 yards and 2 touchdowns. The receiving corps was already down Josh Smith prior to kickoff, and then Jauan Jennings left early with an injury of his own. But Callaway played much bigger than his 6-foot-2, 199-pound frame and nabbed every 50-50 ball.
It took a while, but the Volunteers appear to have answers for the departed Joshua Dobbs at QB, Hurd and Kamara at tailback and Josh Malone at receiver.
The defense is a different story, though. No Derek Barnett at end. No Jalen Reeves-Maybin at linebacker. No Cameron Sutton at cornerback. Even if Reeves-Maybin and Sutton missed a lot of time last year, their replacements were mediocre at best.
If not for the two takeaways, then UT never would’ve had a chance in this one. The first fumble was forced by linebacker Daniel Bituli and recovered by fellow linebacker Cortez McDowell, while the second was knocked free by nickelback Rashaan Gaulden and pounced on by safety Micah Abernathy (below). Each noticeably changed momentum.
Vols coach Butch Jones was rewarded for his conservative approach in OT. He kicked extra points after each TD, apparently never thinking about going for two.
Conversely, Johnson trusted his freshman field general to make one last play from the 2-yard line. It was a gutsy move — not to mention cheered by every writer in the press box on deadline — yet the gamble with Marshall failed to pay off in the end.
A year ago in the season opener, Tennessee trailed Appalachian State 13-3 in the fourth quarter before finding a way to force overtime and ultimately triumphed in the extra period. Jones and Co. pushed their record to 5-0 before running out of miracles in a double-OT defeat to Texas A&M. It ended up being the first of three straight losses.
Ranked 25th in America coming into this game, the Volunteers struggled with another unranked foe and looked bad for prolonged stretches.
On the one hand, UT deserves tons of credit for never giving up and seemingly always fighting their way back once things start spiraling out of control. Nobody can suggest that the kids in orange and white don’t play hard for Jones.
Still, on the other hand, the Vols never make it easy on themselves. This was their 20th overtime game in school history, which is the most of any program at the FBS level. Amazingly, they’ve gone to OT at least once every year dating back to 2007. Jones, currently in his fifth year on Rocky Top, is now 3-3 when having to play bonus football.
In a surprise, highly touted Jarrett Guarantano got zero snaps at the game’s most important position for Tennessee.
Jones didn’t announce a starter leading up to game time, although he hinted at SEC Media Days in July that he might try some sort of two-passer rotation. With Dormady so ineffective at the outset, it was a head-scratcher not to see Guarantano.
Now that Dormady’s first career start resulted in a comeback win of epic proportions, his confidence should only grow going forward. Previously a complementary player, Kelly quickly established himself as a workhorse. Callaway looks to be a big-play artist in his own right and, if nothing else, a quality No. 2 to Jennings once he’s back healthy.
Luckily for the defense, Tennessee opens conference play with Florida in Week 3. The Gators are offensively challenged at this point.
However, the Volunteers will face some quality offenses after their bye in Week 6. If there’s a positive on that side of the ball, it’s that they won’t see another flexbone team like Georgia Tech the rest of the way and can burn this game tape.