Wiedmer: ETSU may not be WVU, but Tennessee looked better

Tennessee linebacker Jonathan Kongbo (99) celebrates with teammates after Saturday's home win against East Tennessee State.
photo Mark Wiedmer

KNOXVILLE - They could have danced and laughed and sounded as if a national championship was just around the corner. Instead, Tennessee's Volunteers acted the way a Southeastern Conference football team should have after beating up on Southern Conference member East Tennessee State University by a 59-3 score Saturday.

"We had a decent game," Vols wide receiver Marquez Callaway said inside Neyland Stadium's media center.

Said defensive lineman Shy Tuttle: "We're on the 24-hour rule. Enjoy the victory, but we've got work to do."

Added first-year Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt: "Lots of positives in this game. (Also) a lot of lessons we can learn."

After last week's 40-14 season-opening loss to West Virginia University, though, this was clearly progress. Big progress.

If nothing else, it's crystal clear that after only two games, Pruitt has completely mastered coaching through a weather delay.

Merely consider that when last week's second half against West Virginia was delayed for an hour due to nearby lightning, a surmountable 13-7 halftime deficit became a 26-point defeat.

This time - the game delayed for 48 minutes because of a lightning strike within six miles of Neyland Stadium with Tennessee up 10-0 about three minutes into the second quarter - the Vols stormed back to score four times in a span of six minutes and 27 seconds thanks to an 82-yard drive, an interception by Bryce Thompson, an interception returned for a touchdown by Darrin Kirkland Jr. and a 69-yard scoring drive.

Said Pruitt of that change from one week to the next: "Last week was a good lesson for our players. I think our strength and conditioning staff tried to create a little more juice for our players (this time)."

Said Tuttle: "We were getting a little stiff."

Added Callaway: "We can't seem to get away from bad weather."

With that second-quarter spurt, though, they got away from the Buccaneers and never looked back, going up 45-0 before ETSU kicked its field goal, then scoring twice more late on a 50-yard pass from graduate transfer quarterback Keller Chryst to Jordan Murphy and a final tally on a 4-yard run from Madre London.

Chryst's stats - 3-for-3 for 70 yards and a touchdown - may not suggest an out-and-out quarterback controversy, because starter Jarrett Guarantano was 8-of-13 for 154 yards, but it does indicate the Vols may indeed have two capable quarterbacks, which is always a positive in the brutal SEC.

What all this really means may not be known for two more weeks. Until the Vols begin SEC play against Florida on Sept. 22 at Neyland, they will remain a mystery. We know West Virginia is pretty good. We know ETSU is overmatched at this level. The Vols certainly looked improved from week one to week two, but they also entered the second quarter with minus-1 yard rushing on eight carries.

Maybe that old saying about lightning never striking twice in the same place needs to be amended to say that no two lightning strikes produce the same result. At least with the 2018 Vols, sometimes they hurt and sometimes they help.

What helped more was facing a team they could dominate in all phases, more than doubling in total yards (414 to 194), as well as forcing three turnovers while committing none for a second straight week.

In fact, a single reason to feel good about Pruitt and his staff is that singular stat: no turnovers for a second straight week.

"We're still making a ton of mistakes," Pruitt said. "But when they do it right, they have a chance to succeed."

A chance is all any knowledgeable Vols supporter desired for this team. Winning an SEC championship is almost assuredly a pipe dream. So, too, winning the SEC East.

But if Tennessee can play as it did over Saturday's final three quarters, playing with passion and reckless abandon, it might steal a win or two and certainly should own the hearts of its fans, who have so long been as disappointed by inconsistent effort as by nonexistent execution.

After all, the defense wasn't always great, but in addition to those turnovers it also blocked a punt for a defensive score. The offense had its struggles early but turned in three plays of 50 or more yards, each of those three long passes caught by a different receiver.

"This was a great win for them (the coaches) and a great win for us," Callaway said, referring to the players.

It was certainly a better ending than a week ago.

Said Pruitt of such improvement, a smile almost visible on his rarely happy face: "We'll learn and keep chuggin' along."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at [email protected].