Pruitt has Vols getting better by the week
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 email@example.com.