By Jimmy Hyams
Jarrett Guarantano has said more than once he didn’t start this season the way he wanted.
Maybe he’ll finish it the right way.
Blasted by most of the media, the Tennessee fans and former Vols for his poor play early, the Vols junior quarterback sparked a second-half comeback by throwing for two touchdown passes to lead UT to a 17-13 win on a chilly night in Lexington, Ky.
The victory also put Tennessee (5-5) in position to make a bowl game for the first time in three years. One more win and UT will make postseason play. Missouri and Vanderbilt remain on the schedule.
“He had a great game tonight,’’ Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said of Guarantano. “We wouldn’t have won this game without Jarrett.’’
That’s true. Guarantano bailed UT out after a miserable first half of offense.
“I’ve trusted Jarrett all along,’’ Pruitt added.
That’s not true. If it were, Guarantano would have started against Kentucky. If it were Pruitt wouldn’t have benched Guarantano after the fourth game.
Pruitt relegated Guarantano to a relief role because Pruitt didn’t trust Guarantano’s decision making. Can’t blame him for that – especially after the ill-fated quarterback sneak at Alabama and the end-zone interception against UAB.
But Pruitt did say Guarantano would help UT win some games even after the coach started other quarterbacks. He was right.
Tennessee doesn’t beat Mississippi State without Guarantano. Might not have won against South Carolina. And certainly wouldn’t have corralled Kentucky (4-5) for the 33 rd time in 35 meetings.
“They call me the sixth man in the locker room,’’ Guarantano said. “That’s pretty funny.’’
Kentucky wasn’t laughing. Guarantano hit his first seven passes of the second half against the Wildcats, including touchdown tosses to Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer, as UT scored on its first two possessions of the third quarter.
And, for the first time in his career, his legs played a major role. He scrambled for 11 yards on third-and-10 on the first scoring drive of the third quarter – thanks to a crushing block by Tim Jordan. Then, when UT needed to run out the clock with 1:08 left, he rolled right and ran for 10 yards on third-and-4 to seal the deal.
“He threw the ball to open receivers,’’ Pruitt said of Guarantano. “He manufactured points for us and ran the offensive extremely well.’’
Guarantano begged off the suggestion that he took a lot of pride in engineering Tennessee’s triumph.
“I get satisfaction out of winning,’’ he said, “and to do that with the team. I’m proud of that.’’
Guarantano wasn’t the only somewhat-unlikely hero. Linebacker Ja’Quain Blakely, who has only six total tackles on the season, was involved in perhaps the biggest play of the game.
With Kentucky facing fourth-and-goal from just inside the UT 2-yard line with 2 minutes left, Blakely and linebacker Daniel Bituli combined to stop Lynn Bowden on an option play to protect a precarious four-point lead.
Blakely, a redshirt junior has played tight end and fullback, might never make a bigger play in his UT career.
Tennessee was outplayed for most of the game. Kentucky outrushed UT 302 yards to 84, ran 71 plays to 46 and dominated time of possession 41:37 to 18:23.
As Pruitt said: “We didn’t start off the way we needed to.’’
Nope. Kentucky took the opening possession, marched 75 yards on 17 plays and consumed 10:18, thanks in part to two UT off sides penalties.
On Tennessee’s first possession, punter Paxton Brooks dropped a snap and had the punt blocked to set UK up at the UT 24. Two plays later, Kentucky led 13-0.
Darel Middleton, a 6-foot-7 defensive lineman, blocked the extra point, which turned out to be pivotal, as Kentucky was forced to go for touchdowns in the second half when a field goal could have tied the game.
“They were just throwing their best at us,’’ Bituli said. “Things we hadn’t seen.’’
Tennessee managed a field goal in the second quarter to cut the gap to 13-3 but the Vols totaled only 136 first-half yards – 34 coming on a late throw – as freshman quarterback Brian Maurer struggled, going 7 of 16 for 98 yards. He had missed the previous two games and was clearly rusty.
Guarantano then delivered the goods, engineering touchdown drives on UT’s first two possessions of the second half.
The UT defense then did its job, making the necessary adjustments to hold Kentucky scoreless in the final three quarters. The Vols stopped Kentucky’s last three drives on fourth down plays. Those possessions were for 9, 10 and 12 plays. The last three snaps were inside the UT 5-yard line. But UT refused to yield.
While Kentucky pounded out 302 rushing yards, the inability to pass caught up with the Wildcats. Bowden, who rushed for 114 yards on 26 carries, badly underthrew a ball that Nigel Warrior intercepted and appeared to return for a touchdown – until replay showed he stepped out of bounds at his 46.
Bowden’s lack of a passing threat allowed UT to stack the line and make stops at critical moments.
None was more critical than the goal line stand in the final two minutes.
But that wouldn’t have mattered if Guarantano hadn’t rescued the day – and perhaps the season – for Tennessee.