Updated with more information and photos at 12:30 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2019
KNOXVILLE — In the months since their 5-7 football season that was preceded by a 4-8 campaign, the Tennessee Volunteers spoke on numerous occasions about their work to turn the corner.
They enhanced the competition at numerous position groups on the team. Got bigger. Stronger.
It all was supposed to lead to the sort of turnaround season that would bring optimism to a once-proud program that entered the 2019 season two games under .500 this decade.
Saturday was supposed to be the sort of game that would drive home the point that the Vols are on the road to becoming the sort of team they were in the 1990s.
They may still get there, but they're not off to the best start.
Georgia State, a Sun Belt Conference team that finished 2-10 last season and never had defeated a Power Five conference program since beginning play in 2010, stunned the Vols 38-30 in front of 85,503 spectators at Neyland Stadium. That ended a 20-game winning streak for the Vols against non-Power Five teams, with the last loss a 13-7 defeat to Wyoming during the 2008 season — former coach Phillip Fulmer's final year at the helm.
GEORGIA STATE 38, TENNESSEE 30
Staff writer Gene Henley breaks down the game in bits and pieces.
Georgia State quarterback Dan Ellington was in control from the outset. He wasn’t great passing the ball, finishing 11-for-24, but he was effective, with two of his completions going for touchdowns and six others creating first downs. He also ran for 61 yards and a 22-yard score and used his feet to escape a number of Tennessee rushes.
The Panthers had 110 yards of offense in the first half but rushed for 160 in the second half at a rate of nearly 5 yards per carry. Their offensive line repeatedly was able to get a push on Tennessee’s defensive front — which continually rotated bodies — which allowed the Panthers to consistently move the ball methodically upfield.
Tennessee had the ball with the score tied at 14 with 3:11 to play in the first half and a chance to take a touchdown lead. The Volunteers were able to drive downfield, but some bad execution in the red zone led to them settling for a field goal. The Panthers started the second half with a touchdown to take control, then followed up with 17 fourth-quarter points.
Tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson gave the Vols faithful something to cheer about with a 54-yard catch-and-run that led to one of Brent Cimaglia’s three field goals. Wood-Anderson was wide open on the left sideline and was hit with a perfectly thrown ball by Jarrett Guarantano.
WHAT IT MEANS
The last time Tennessee lost to a non-Power Five conference team, Phillip Fulmer was fired as coach. The ramifications of this loss won’t be quite as severe, but it should serve as a reality check that the Vols aren’t nearly as close to relevance as they’d hoped. The road won’t get any easier, but all they can do is regroup, figure out what’s wrong and try their best to fix it.
"To me, the best team out there won the game today," second-year Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "The team that played the best, executed the best, outcoached us. It starts with that. Let's start there.
"Georgia State's staff done a great job on both sides of the ball. Created different looks on defense, confused us a little bit and we turned the ball over, held the ball some when we didn't have to."
The Panthers won Saturday by dominating the line of scrimmage offensively in the second half and taking advantage of multiple Tennessee offensive miscues. Georgia State rushed for 213 yards in the game, with 160 of those coming on 33 second-half carries.
Quarterback Dan Ellington was only 11-for-24 passing for 139 yards, but two of his completions went for touchdowns and six others went for first downs. He completed 10 of his final 14 passes and rushed for 61 yards and a 22-yard score that put the game away.
Tra Barnett led the Panthers with 95 rushing yards, including a 19-yard touchdown that put them up 28-23 in the fourth quarter. That was the second of three consecutive possessions that ended in points for the visitors, who entered the game as 26-point underdogs.
Vols quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw for 311 yards and two scores but was sacked four times, lost a fumble and threw an interception. Tennessee lost two fumbles in all and turned the ball over twice on downs.
The Panthers scored 17 points off Tennessee's three turnovers.
"I think there's a lot of things to learn from this game," Guarantano said. "They did a really good job disguising things and did some things we didn't see on tape. They played very well, played very aggressive; we weren't expecting the things they were showing.
"I think they got the best of us today."
Jauan Jennings went over 100 receiving yards for the third time in his Tennessee career and fell 3 yards short of his career high with 108 yards on seven catches, while freshman Eric Gray was a bright spot with 80 yards of total offense on 13 touches (seven carries, six receptions). Dominick Wood-Anderson had a 54-yard catch that led to a field goal that put the Vols up 23-21 in the fourth quarter.
Brent Cimaglia kicked three field goals, but that was the problem: The Vols were unable to score touchdowns, failing to do so on eight consecutive possessions after back-to-back touchdowns in the first quarter. The field goals came back to haunt them, as the Panthers outscored the Vols 31-9 until a late touchdown pass from Guarantano to Jennings.
"I would say it's an eye-opener," senior outside linebacker Darrell Taylor said. "It makes us realize that no one is going to come out on the field and just give us the game. From offense to defense, I think we all have to play better. I think it's a wake-up call that's making us think that we have to play better and we have to practice better. We've got to come harder in practice, we've got to get in the film room even more now just because of the way we played in our first game.
"I definitely think it's an eye-opener, and this will make us better in the future."