KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s coaching staff pulled out a gem of a victory Monday night, but that narrative was overshadowed by an older, trashier storyline.
Instead of discussing how the No. 21-ranked Vols improved to 17-4 in their last 21 games with a turnover-free effort, talk turned to a sideline trash can used to motivate players to get turnovers.
The two turnovers Tennessee forced were indeed newsworthy, but the trash can — which was also on the sideline last season in an effort to motivate defensive players to force turnovers — was not.
Sophomore Daniel Bituli, making his first career start in place of injured projected starter Austin Smith, caused the first fumble in addition to recording a game-high 23 tackles.
Defensive back Rashaan Gaulden, the most improved player on defense, came up with a strip at the Vols’ 7-yard line that essentially saved the game with 4:50 left.
Quarterback Quinten Dormady, making his first career start, orchestrated a 7-play, 93-yard touchdown to cap off his 11-of-16 passing performance (156 yards) in the second half.
Tailback John Kelly, in his first game as the primary ball carrier, averaged 6.7 yards per carry and finished with 128 yards and 4 touchdowns.
The lunatic fringe, however, turned social media channels into a circus during the game and in the follow-up discussion on Tuesday.
Critics focused on the amount of yardage surrendered (655 yards) instead of crediting the Vols with denying Georgia Tech points on its final three drives over the last 13 minutes of the game.
Indeed, it was the defense that made the game-winning play, when defensive end Darrell Taylor burst into the backfield and stopped Yellow Jackets QB Ta’Quon Marshall on a 2-point attempt.
There were a lot of great things that happened for Tennessee football in Atlanta on Monday night, but most of the national media and some of the Vols’ very own fans missed that story line.
It’s worth noting that Butch Jones — ranked No. 52 among the 65 Power 5 conference coaches by CBSsports.com this past offseason — got the better of Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson, who was ranked No. 24.
• Sophomore WR Marquez Callaway answered one of the most important questions of the offseason with his 4-catch, 115-yard, 2-TD effort. The Vols didn’t know how they would replace Josh Malone.
• Offensive coordinator Larry Scott knew exactly what plays to turn to in the fourth quarter, turning the Vols into an offensive machine. Tennessee piled up 191 yards on 21 plays in the fourth quarter and overtime (9.09 yards per play) after totaling 178 yards on 38 plays the first three quarters (4.68 yards per play).
• Freshman tackle Trey Smith was a road grater, and Jones said senior center Jashon Robertson had the best game of his career. Sophomore LT Drew Richmond returns from suspension on Saturday.
….and this is why Trey Smith was the top-ranked player in the country. pic.twitter.com/b1qKZIiwXB
— Derek Tyson (@DerekJTyson) September 5, 2017
• Jones talked about needing to play a clean game and the Vols, with seven first-time starters, committed only 2 penalties for 20 yards.
• Special teams remain a strength, as Trevor Daniel averaged 47 yards on his punts, Paul Bain blocked a field goal attempt and Evan Berry had 2 kick returns totaling 86 yards.
• Dormady, making his first career start, showed why he’s the choice behnd center by maintaining his poise even as receivers dropped 5 passes in the first half, preventing the offense from getting into any sort of rhythm.
• Much of Kelly’s yardage came after contact, as the 5-foot-9, 205-pound back seemed to defy his lack of size by running through tackle attempts of much larger defenders.
• Callaway was the only receiver who appeared to have any knack for making yardage after the catch. More than once, the Vols fell just short of first downs because receivers had poor field awareness.
• ESPN cameras caught QB Jarrett Guarantano appearing detached and passed judgement on him. It’s unfortunate for Guarantano that Kirk Herbstreit called him out on national television before he has taken so much as one snap, even if he could have had better body language.
— Mike Griffith (@MikeGriffith32) September 6, 2017
• The defensive line needs to play more physical according to Jones, likely explaining how Georgia Tech was able to call 31 straight run plays during one stretch.
• Safety Nigel Warrior was did some good things in his first start, but he also had several busts, one resulting in a 44-yard completion, another a would-be TD had the QB made an accurate throw to wide-open WR.
• Tennessee’s defensive line depth remains a question mark after the Vols played just four tackles and three defensive ends.
• Injuries to WR Jauan Jennings and DT Kendal Vickers took out two of the Vols most proven players.
• The trash can. Maybe if the manager hadn’t been holding it over his head it would not have been such an easy target for the commentators as Georgia Tech controlled the game through the first three quarters.
Butch on trash can: “It’s something we have done for a year …. it’s heightened awareness of turnovers and having some fun with it.”
— Mike Griffith (@MikeGriffith32) September 6, 2017
• Jones listed the following players as questionable for this week: Vickers, KR Evan Berry, DT Shy Tuttle and WR Josh Smith.
• The slot WR position needs improvement quickly. Sophomore Tyler Byrd continued to struggle with two dropped passes, and Smith is sidelined indefinitely by his injury.
• Freshman WR Josh Palmer is a player Jones said the Vols’ will lean on more moving forward, and freshman Jordan Murphy will make his debut.
• Dormady needs work with the young receiving corps as it’s his last chance to get polished up before the Florida game. It’s not clear how much work Jones will get Dormady before playing Guarantano.
• The Vols want to bring Guarantano along, aware of his great potential as well as the need to have a second QB ready. It’s hard to know just how successful Guarantano will be in his debut.
• Could freshmen Will Ignont (LB), LaTrell Bumphus (TE), Matthew Butler (DE) and Deandre Johnson (DE), and graduate transfer Shaq Wiggins (CB) make their season debuts against Indiana State?
• Could Ryan Thaxton, Maleik Gray, Shanon Reid, Kivon Bennett, Eric Crosby, Trey Coleman, Princeton Fant, Solon Paige lll, and James Brown join offensive linemen Riley Locklear and K’Rohjn Calbert as redshirts this season?
Did you know …
• Tennessee’s all-time record in overtime games is now 13-7, the most OT wins all-time in NCAA history?
• Tennessee averaged more yards per rush (6.7) than Georgia Tech (6.2) on Monday night?
• Butch Jones is 5-0 in season-opening games at Tennessee?
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