After a near perfect first half, Tennessee was perfectly awful on offense in the second half.
In the final 30 minutes, Tennessee couldn’t convert third downs, couldn’t stop third downs, and couldn’t score.
Those struggles allowed Arkansas (3-3) to rally from a 13-0 deficit to upend the Vols (2-4) Saturday night in Fayetteville, Ark., 24-13.
UT’s fourth consecutive defeat was particularly unsettling for coach Jeremy Pruitt.
Losing to a program in a one-year rebuild isn’t a good look when you’re three years into a rebuild.
The Hogs outscored the Vols 24-0 in the second half, continuing a disturbing trend. In the last four games, opponents have whipped UT 88-7 in the second half.
That fact is not lost on sophomore running back Eric Gray.
“We definitely talked about it,’’ said Gray, who rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries.
“That’s one of our maxims: keep in there for 60 minutes, strain, play hard and make sure you play the whole game.’’
The Vols (2-4) did exactly what they needed to do in the first half. They ran the ball effectively, converted four of their first five third-downs, controlled time of possession by nearly 10 minutes and shutout Arkansas by keeping the Hogs’ offense on the sideline.
But in the second half, Arkansas seized momentum with a 17-play touchdown drive, Vols quarterback Jarrett Guarantano suffered what appeared to be a head injury on the initial series of the second half, and the Hogs hit three splash plays that resulted in a 14-13 lead it never relinquished.
After Guarantano’s injury, Tennessee played quarterbacks Brian Maurer (0-for-4 passing) then Harrison Bailey (6-for-9 for 65 yards) but couldn’t manufacture any points.
Down by 11, the Vols were in position to kick a 42-yard field goal with about five minutes left, but Pruitt went for it on fourth-and-4 and the failed attempt sealed the deal.
Why not kick a field goal to cut the deficit to a one-possession score?
“We felt like it was a good spot to get a first down,’’ Pruitt said. “We knew needed two scores and it was 4th-and-3.’’
Pruitt also said kicker Brent Cimaglia had been nursing an undisclosed injury and even though he had kicked a 49-yard field goal, Pruitt wasn’t as confident he could make another from 40-plus.
When UT marched to the Arkansas 10-yard line in the final seconds, it did little good, since the Vols needed two scores.
“I’m not disappointed,’’ said Pruitt, who guided UT to an 8-5 record after a 2-5 start last year. “I’m pissed off.
“I’ve been a part of a lot of (successful) programs. I know how to get there. We’ve got to play at a higher level.
“The execution part is not where it needs to be at, and that’s my fault, not the players’ fault. We’ve got to be able to execute at a higher level if we want to finish the way we want to finish.’’
The outlook isn’t bright. Tennessee’s quarterback play has been spotty. Its second-half play has been downright awful. And the last four opponents: top-10 Texas A&M, top 25 Auburn, winless Vanderbilt and top-10 Florida.
There’s a chance UT could go 1-3 in its last four games. That would create quite an uproar among the Vol faithful.
“Maybe we haven’t played our best,’’ Pruitt said. “Maybe we haven’t coached our best.’’
The question is: Why not?
Why has a team that had so much promise entering the season, that ended 2019 on a six-game win streak and a bowl win, not improved?
It’s hard to argue that you’re closing the gap on Alabama when you can’t beat Kentucky or Arkansas.
And it’s hard to beat Kentucky and Arkansas when you get average to inferior quarterback play.
Until UT upgrades that position, it won’t compete in the East.
And it might go 3-7 this season.
“I believe in these guys,’’ Pruitt said. “We’ll get it fixed.’’
You better hurry. Because the Aggies are playing like one of the top four teams in the SEC and Auburn’s last outing was a 48-11 demolition of LSU.
Tennessee linebacker Henry To’o To’o said the Vols had a good mindset at halftime.
“Whenever you’re winning by 13 points you have confidence,’’ To’o To’o said. “But you can never let your foot off the gas. You can never count anybody out.’’
Did UT let its foot off the gas?
“We gave up a 13-point lead,’’ To’o to’o said. “So in my opinion, yes we did.’’
And it cost the Vols a heart-breaking defeat against a rebuilding program in Year One.