KNOXVILLE—This is how it was supposed to look.
Following two consecutive stunning upset losses, Tennessee finally got the game it was looking for on Saturday, as it blew out Chattanooga, 45-0, at Neyland Stadium.
Victory was never in doubt with redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano throwing for a career-high three touchdowns and the Mocs giving up five turnovers to Tennessee’s defense.
“Got a good win and got five turnovers today, which was very important,” Pruitt said. “We didn’t turn the ball over — was probably the difference in the game.”
The Vols scored five touchdowns and hit one field goal during the first half. Ty Chandler had a 13-yard rushing score, and Brandon Johnson recovered and returned a blocked punt for a touchdown, while Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Cedric Tillman snagged touchdown passes from Guarantano.
Tennessee’s only score in the second half was a 6-yard rushing touchdown by freshman backup quarterback Brian Maurer.
A key piece of Tennessee’s puzzle fit back into the lineup on Saturday.
After sitting out the first two games due to a minor knee procedure, senior linebacker Daniel Bituli started against the Mocs. He played sparingly, rotating series with Tennessee’s other linebackers.
Bituli finished with four tackles and one pass breakup.
“It’s good that we got Daniel Bituli to play,” Pruitt said. “He needed to play. He’s probably not 100 percent yet, but he needed to play. And he’ll get better. He’s really improved a lot in the last three or four days.”
While Tennessee’s defensive woes against Georgia State and BYU can’t all be blamed on Bituli’s absence, his leadership and effect on the unit is evident when he’s on the field. Bituli could be seen managing the defense and making sure players were in the right spots during Saturday’s game.
“It felt good,” Bituli said. “Just makes you appreciate the game when you’re on the sideline, watching your guys go out there and battle. I’m glad I’m able to come back and just support my team anyway I can.”
BACKUP QUARTERBACKS DON'T OFFER MUCH
One of the key things fans and media were anticipating to see out of Saturday’s game was the play of the Vols’ reserve signal callers.
With a blowout expected, Maurer and redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout were expected to see heavy playing time, and that’s exactly what happened. It was the first collegiate action for both players.
Maurer was the first quarterback off the bench, and he finished with 16 yards and one touchdown on four carries. He was 0-of-2 passing.
Shrout, meanwhile, was 3-of-9 passing for 23 yards. His first attempt was tipped off the hands of a teammate and intercepted, but the play was negated due to a roughing-the-passer penalty.
“They both done some good things in the game and they both made some horrible decisions in the game,” Pruitt said. “Which is expected, right? That’s their first opportunity. That’s why we’ve been wanting to get them out there … I didn’t see much out there that separated them today.”
Pruitt has stressed that Guarantano is the quarterback that gives the Vols the best chance to win, and despite the criticism of him, that was evident on Saturday. Neither reserve quarterback gave much evidence that they should be in the conversation to start.
“I knew that Brian and J.T. needed some snaps,” Guarantano said. “Going into this rough schedule of the SEC, we’re going to have to rely on a backup quarterback sooner or later. And that happens all the time … I’m happy with the way they performed. We have film now to watch of them.”
Maurer or Shrout, or both, may end up being standout quarterbacks for the Vols in the future, but based on Saturday’s action, it may not be in the near future.
THIS ISN'T THE SEC
Although Tennessee’s big win on Saturday was fun for the fans and possibly reenergizing for the program, the opponent doesn’t compare with what is awaiting the Vols.
Tennessee will travel to Gainesville for a matchup with rival Florida next — its first SEC game of the season. The Vols haven’t beaten the Gators since 2016, former head coach Butch Jones’ second-to-last year with the team.
“When you’re playing these SEC teams,” Bituli said, “it’s a whole different world.”
The Mocs are obviously a much less-talented team than the Gators, and the issues that have plagued the Vols since the season began won’t just magically disappear with one win.
Pruitt and his staff still have to address those problems, like Guarantano’s inconsistency and poor defensive play, as the Vols enter SEC play — a slate that also features powerhouses Georgia and Alabama.
“Our whole football team, we’ve got to continue to be technical,” Pruitt said. “We’ve got to coach effort. We’ve got to coach toughness. We’ve got to have a good understanding of what we’re trying to get done in all three phases.
“And we’ve got to find some consistency. That’s what good football teams do.”