KNOXVILLE — The visions of a comforting blowout win on homecoming faded on Tennessee's first series, courtesy of a mediocre Conference USA defense.
A game that should have been a reprieve from a season of brutal hits for Volunteers quarterback Jarrett Guarantano turned into another painful slugfest for the redshirt sophomore and his team.
Tennessee's struggling offensive line let Guarantano hit the field three times on the Vols' first possession alone.
Only a punt return could spark a lifeless Tennessee attack in a 14-3 win over Charlotte on Saturday in front of an announced crowd of 86,753 at Neyland Stadium.
The crowd seemed about half that number by the fourth quarter, when Charlotte surged into Tennessee territory and threatened to make it a one-possession game.
Tennessee's defense — a bright spot in an otherwise dreary affair — needed a stop on fourth-and-1 from Kyle Phillips and Deandre Johnson to negate a quick escalation of late-game drama.
In the end, Tennessee escaped — but with plenty to correct before Kentucky (7-2) comes to town this week.
"We didn't do a very good job blocking them," Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said.
Charlotte (4-5) entered with the eighth-ranked defense in its conference, having allowed more than 40 points in games against Appalachian State and Massachusetts. But the 49ers gave Tennessee (4-5) fits on defense.
The Vols finished with a season-low 192 yards of offense. Joe Doyle punted seven times, and another series ended with Brent Cimaglia's first missed field goal of shorter than 40 yards this season.
Except for an 82-yard punt return by Marquez Callaway in the first quarter, Tennessee scored only once as it limped to within two games of bowl eligibility.
To what did Pruitt attribute his team's offensive woes?
"I would say Charlotte," he said. "Those guys did a really good job against us creating different looks. If they're not lined up the same way every time, then that forces you as an offensive player to make decisions. If you're going to be successful, whether it's running the ball (or) protecting, you have to decide who you're going to block. And if there's any indecisiveness there, then you're probably in trouble."
Playing with freshman Jeremy Banks as its primary running back, Tennessee's running game regressed considerably from the potency it flashed in a 27-24 loss at South Carolina the week before.
In that game, Vols running backs Tim Jordan and Ty Chandler averaged 4.9 and 5.2 yards per carry, respectively, with 10 or more attempts each. Against Charlotte, the Vols averaged 1.7 yards per carry. With the two sacks Guarantano took factored in, the Vols averaged 0.8 yard per carry.
"We've just got to come together as a unit," Vols tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson said. "We're all capable of running the ball down people. We've got to come together as a unit. I think sometimes we start off slow, and I think that's one of our downfalls. We've just got come in prepared more and start with a bang."
Tennessee started the same combination of offensive linemen for a second straight game, with Marcus Tatum at left tackle in place of preseason All-Southeastern Conference first-team member Trey Smith, who is expected to miss the rest of the season due to blood clots in his lungs. Eventually, however, the Vols entered Chance Hall at right guard and moved Nathan Niehaus to right tackle, sending redshirt junior right tackle Drew Richmond to the bench.
"When you look up there (at the scoreboard) and see you have 2 yards rushing," Pruitt said, "at some point in time you might as well make some changes."
In spite of his offensive line's woes, Guarantano pieced together another efficient performance, throwing for 172 yards and a touchdown on 21 passes while avoiding turnovers.
The win was Tennessee's 30th straight at home against opponents outside the Power Five conferences. The poor offensive showing overshadowed a respectable effort from the Vols' defense, which held Charlotte to a field goal as it surged into Tennessee territory late in the first half.
"It was very important," junior safety Nigel Warrior said. "We always want to stop them from getting six. We also want to stop them from getting three, but we would rather them get three than six any time."
Charlotte's offense mustered just 244 total yards, despite possessing the football for 6 1/2 minutes longer than Tennessee and converting only five of 15 third downs into firsts.
The Vols' offense looked even worse at times.
"I think a lot of us underestimated Charlotte," said junior receiver Marquez Callaway, who finished with three catches for 30 yards. "They're a great team on offense and defense. I think we were ready to get on to Kentucky. We had to take care of Charlotte, and Charlotte really showed up and proved to us not to overlook them."