Wrong turn at Pruitt Crossroads

Marvin Westwestwords

If the Arkansas game really was the crossroads of Jeremy Pruitt’s coaching career, he made a wrong turn. He and the Vols are headed toward the wilderness.

The Razorbacks, Vanderbilt rivals for previous doormats of the Southeastern Conference, overwhelmed Tennessee in the third quarter and gave the Volunteers a rude shove in the general direction of a losing season. They have dropped four in a row. More serious trouble looms.

The collapse is alarming and comes with risks compounded. It will be increasingly difficult to hold onto the committed recruiting class. Elite prep stars want to contend for championships. Much like fans, they insist on seeing potential success without resorting to telescopes.

Pruitt’s propensity for changing assistants creates the probability that one or more will depart. Clarification of fundamentals and assignments and more consistent execution is the dream.

We now know change is not guaranteed good.

Those who have clamored for a quarterback change got one but may not like what they got. Jarrett Guarantano took a double-barrel hit on a short run and flight, landed upside down and suffered an apparent head injury. A mean shoulder to the helmet when he was already down was the probable cause.

Everybody knows Guarantano is rugged. He didn’t want to leave the fray. Doctors made the decision.

First replacement Brian Maurer didn’t get anything going. He was 0-4 on throws. Second replacement Harrison Bailey completed six of nine but five were exactly what the Razorbacks wanted, short throws in front of the defense that used up remaining minutes.

It was ironic – or perhaps fitting – that Bailey’s final pass was another batted-around interception, his second of the evening. It matched the mood.

What we are seeing wasn’t supposed to be this way. Pruitt is in his third year. Improvement was expected. He had changed the culture. The roster was stronger. There was a nice, little winning streak as a foundation. The offensive line was maturing.

Experience across the board had been earned the hard way. There were 17 returning starters. There were 20 seniors that mattered. Better days were ahead. I suppose they are still out there – somewhere.

In reflection, the open date undoubtedly influenced the first half against Arkansas. Tennessee decided it really could run inside. Correct assessment. Good game plan. The Vols dominated time of possession. There was running room, sometimes gaps. Eric Gray had 89 yards.

Tennessee delivered one great declaration of strength and size, which is what the offensive line is supposed to do. The Vols chewed up eight minutes and 29 seconds with 16 plays and gained 81 yards, 73 on the ground. That was exactly how Pruitt wanted it.

Tennessee superiority looked greater than the 13-0 on the scoreboard.

Arkansas started making adjustments before intermission. Coach Sam Pittman said he told his team during the rest stop that the game wasn’t over, that a 13-point deficit wasn’t like 50, that the Razorbacks could move the ball, too.

I do believe the third quarter was the worst 15 minutes I have seen from Tennessee – as in ever. There were three Arkansas touchdowns and a field goal from four possessions – 75, 67, 81 and 49 yards. The Vols couldn’t stop anything. The offense responded with three three-and-outs, gained a grand total of 16 yards and lost the starting quarterback.

Pruitt summed up the defensive disaster succinctly: “One drive, two big plays.”

Pittman, trying to be polite, marveled at the statistics: “Twenty-four points scored and 16 yards allowed. You know what momentum is. We had it. We rode it through the third quarter.”

Razorback linebacker Bumper Pool, leading tackler, said it was one of the most fun times he’s ever had in football.

Quarterback Feleipe Franks, an established Tennessee nemesis, delivered a classic understatement: “It was a good quarter.”

Points to ponder: In the four-game losing streak, Tennessee has surrendered 88 second-half points and scored seven. Arkansas has 12 interceptions in six games. Tennessee has two.

Open date did not measurably alter contributions from Vol freshmen other than Bailey.

Pittman wants you to know that good coordinators make a difference. He has former Missouri head coach Barry Odom as defensive coordinator and Kendal Briles, who survived the Baylor dirt, as offensive coordinator.

Pittman did not go into how easy it is to find talented people who fit the overall concept and let them do their thing. Be reminded of what David Cutcliffe did for Phillip Fulmer.

Tennessee is 2-4. Please choose, out loud, the remaining games you think the Vols will win:

  • Texas A&M at Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
  • At Auburn on Nov. 21.
  • At Vanderbilt two days after Thanksgiving.
  • Florida at Neyland on Dec. 5.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.

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