West Virginia: Optimism punctured

Marvin WestFeature, westwords

Coaching tip: “When things go bad, the first thing you’ve got to do is put out the fire.”

That might remind you of Butch Jones wisdom but it is a full notch up. Understandable if Butch was your first reaction. What happened in Charlotte did look a lot like 2017.

Tennessee wasn’t ready for prime time. The offensive line opened without unity. Equal-opportunity West Virginia threw the football 34 times, enough for several defensive Volunteers to get beat deep. Some were freshmen. Some had no excuse.

Jarrett Guarantano played better than expected.

So did Will Grier. He completed 25 for a career-high 429 yards and five touchdowns. He had just three incomplete passes in the second half. Tennessee rookie Trey Flowers, with a great effort, touched one.

The Mountaineers piled up 547 yards of offense. Does that sound familiar?

West Virginia coaches won the weather delay. Tennessee trailed 13-7 after the first half. Any dream of a big upset vanished in the third quarter. The Mountaineers had gone to school. They racked up more than 200 yards and Grier threw three TD strikes. On occasion, defensive backs were close enough to see the action.

Unreasonable optimism has been punctured. I am revising my 7-5 forecast to 6-6. Don’t be alarmed. Let us continue to count on victories over East Tennessee State and Texas-El Paso.

For two weeks before Charlotte, there were whispers that Jeremy Pruitt was whispering optimism to big Tennessee donors. I can’t be absolutely certain that the coach was all that confident. Jeremy didn’t whisper anything to me. I am not a big donor. I am only a humble honorary letterman.

Coaches have been known to play mind games. Could be Pruitt expressed confidence to insiders with the hope that word would get around and come back to help his team. From all appearances, the circle was broken or the Vols just didn’t grasp the message.

The defense looked overmatched. Grier was seldom pressured. Kyle Phillips did give chase.

All is not lost. Pruitt is keeping the faith. He even says the offensive line will be OK. The noted teacher of defensive backs in times past will eventually develop some more. His freshmen are athletes. Alas, Grier made them look exactly like freshmen.

Incidentally, the opening quote came from Pruitt. He holds the fire extinguisher.

Offensive coordinator Tyson Helton has also earned part of his pay. Guarantano looked much improved over last season. He got the ball out on time and was generally accurate, 19 of 25 for 172 yards and one touchdown, no picks. Marquez Callaway had seven catches for 85 yards.

After the awful start, the offensive line played some better. Tim Jordan gained 118 yards on 20 carries. He broke four tackles on a fiercely determined 17-yard run.

Linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. was combative. He led with four solo tackles and four assists. Defensive back Theo Jackson forced a fumble. Defensive lineman Paul Bain recovered it.

Contrary to rumor, what comes next is not an open date. East Tennessee State (tickets for sale) may be easy enough but the game should be a very important opportunity for Volunteer adjustments and improvement. Keller Chryst will supposedly play some quarterback.

No matter the outcome, Saturday projects as a happy homecoming for ETSU coach Randy Sanders and several young people from Knoxville who play on his team (Haddon Hill and Garrett Curtis from Hardin Valley Academy, Kobe Kelley from Grace Christian Academy, Nate Adkins from Bearden, Austin Rowan from Catholic High, Mason McNutt from South-Doyle, Michael Scates from Fulton and Dustin Nickle from Webb School).

Two decades ago, Sanders made more impact as a student than player at Tennessee. He was on the Southeastern Conference academic honor roll all four years, 1985-88.

Dr. Andy Kozar, UT legend and longtime professor, said Randy was the brightest student he ever had. He urged him to stay in school and go for his doctorate rather than into coaching. Financially speaking, Randy made the correct choice.

He took a whopping pay cut to move from unemployed offensive coordinator to head coach. He was earning $600,000 at Florida State. Base pay in Johnson City is $255,000.

There is an interesting little gem among incentives. He’ll receive a $15,000 bonus if his Bucs defeat Tennessee.

Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.

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