Pruitt has Vols get­ting bet­ter by the week

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - SPORTS -

KNOXVILLE — As he was pre­view­ing last Mon­day his team’s up­com­ing game against Ten­nessee, Ken­tucky foot­ball coach Mark Stoops said of the Vol­un­teers squad his Wild­cats were fa­vored to beat by close to a touch­down: “They’re get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter and play­ing bet­ter de­fen­sively the sec­ond part of the year. You see (Jeremy Pruitt’s) char­ac­ter­is­tics start­ing to take form.”

If you thought this was merely coach-speak, empty com­pli­ments meant to tamp down over­con­fi­dence among his No. 12 Wild­cats, you haven’t been watch­ing the Vols closely enough of late.

Yes, this was Ken­tucky that UT thor­oughly whipped 24-7 on Satur­day, and Big Blew has now fallen 17 straight times to the Big Or­ange on the Vols’ home soil. The Wild­cats’ last win in­side Ney­land Sta­dium was all the way back in 1984.

But some­thing else has been in play for weeks with Ten­nessee — a some­what quiet yet largely con­sis­tent run of im­prove­ment, go­ing all the way back to the Ge­or­gia game on the 29th af­ter­noon of Septem­ber.

The Vols lost that one 38-12, but they had their mo­ments, both on of­fense and de­fense. Af­ter an off week came the road up­set of then-No. 21 Auburn. Bama may have been an over­all night­mare, 58-21, but even that came with a 14-point sec­ond quar­ter against a Tide de­fense that hasn’t al­lowed a point since then in beat­ing LSU and Mis­sis­sippi State.

But what hap­pened Satur­day against Ken­tucky was ar­guably the high­light of the year, if for no other rea­son that it moves Ten­nessee to 5-5 for the sea­son, which means it needs no more than a split in its fi­nal two games against Mis­souri on Satur­day and at Van­der­bilt two days af­ter Thanks­giv­ing to be­come bowl el­i­gi­ble.

“It wasn’t per­fect,” Pruitt said af­ter watch­ing his team. “But it was def­i­nitely a pos­i­tive.”

The pos­i­tives were ev­ery­where, begin­ning with quar­ter­back Jar­rett Guar­an­tano, who was 12-of-20 for 197 yards, two touch­downs and zero in­ter­cep­tions. That last num­ber is es­pe­cially sig­nif­i­cant be­cause he’s now gone 146 straight passes with­out a pick­off, which breaks the pro­gram’s old record of 143 set by Casey Clausen in 2003.

But if any­thing per­fectly frames what the New Jersey na­tive means to this pro­gram, it’s what he said to Ken­tucky All-Amer­ica can­di­date and fel­low Gar­den State na­tive Josh Allen af­ter Allen lev­eled him on a com­pleted pass.

Said Jersey Jar­rett: “There’s no hit that’s go­ing to take me out.”

Yet it was Guar­an­tano team­mate Dar­rell Tay­lor who did the most to take out UK. The de­fen­sive end sacked Wild­cats quar­ter­back Terry Wil­son four times for mi­nus31 yards. He also forced a fum­ble.

Notic­ing that Ken­tucky was at­tempt­ing to stop him with only a sin­gle of­fen­sive tackle on one oc­ca­sion, Tay­lor grinned and said, “My eyes lit up like Christ­mas trees.”

Some might ar­gue that Ken­tucky is the Christ­mas gift that ar­rives early each year for the Vols. Begin­ning in 1985, seven dif­fer­ent UK head foot­ball coaches have beaten UT a to­tal of twice. A Vols foot­ball win over UK might trail only death, taxes and the ridicu­lous Oc­to­ber ar­rival of tacky hol­i­day sweaters to your fa­vorite depart­ment store in de­gree of cer­tainty.

But this was at least as much about Ten­nessee’s weekly im­prove­ment un­der Pruitt as Ken­tucky’s an­nual swoon un­der Stoops come Novem­ber, given that the Cats are now 5-18 in the turkey month since he ar­rived in the Blue­grass State be­fore the 2013 sea­son.

It’s not Pruitt only, of course. Guar­an­tano re­layed to the me­dia what was said on the field by UK play­ers just be­fore he threw a touch­down pass to tight end Do­minick Wood-An­der­son to hike the lead to 24-0 mid­way through the third quar­ter.

“They said they knew what was coming, they knew it was go­ing to be a sweep,” Guar­an­tano said of the sec­ond-and-goal play from the UK 2-yard line.

Of course, if they thought that it might be a sweep, it could be be­cause UT of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Tyson Hel­ton had de­signed the play in a way that would make the Wild­cats think that. Com­bine that with a de­fense that held a UK team that had av­er­aged 199.6 rush­ing yards per game to 77 rush­ing yards, and you be­gin to get a pic­ture of a young team com­pet­ing more com­pletely for vic­to­ries than per­haps any time since UT ath­letic di­rec­tor Phillip Ful­mer’s fi­nal SEC East cham­pi­onship team in 2007.

An­other per­spec­tive on how well Pruitt and his staff are per­form­ing 10 games into his first year on the job? Listen to UK de­fen­sive back Mike Ed­wards, who said of the Vols’ game plan: “They did a lot of things Ge­or­gia did (in a 34-17 UK loss). They steal a lot of things that other teams did to their op­po­nents. … I think they copied what Ge­or­gia did a lit­tle bit, and they just out­played us.”

To be sure, Mis­souri and Van­der­bilt will pose quite dif­fer­ent chal­lenges than Ken­tucky. Both Miz­zou’s Drew Lock and Vandy’s Kyle Shur­mur are the kind of gun­sling­ing quar­ter­backs that could se­verely test a youth­ful Vols se­condary and rel­a­tively thin de­fen­sive line.

Re­gard­less, Pruitt is now the only cur­rent SEC head coach to have posted two wins over ranked foes in his first sea­son on the job.

“You look at good teams, they kind of play their best ball at the end,” Pruitt said. “We’re 2-0 in Novem­ber.”

More im­por­tantly, they’re one win from a bowl game. And as Stoops ad­vised any­one will­ing to listen long be­fore this lat­est Vols vic­tory un­folded, they’re get­ting bet­ter by the week.

Con­tact Mark Wied­mer at mwied­mer@times­freep­ress.com.

Mark Wied­mer

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