Three big plays on special teams and defense set the tone for the Vols to roll to a 59-3 win over East Tennessee State on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
The Vols’ first touchdown under Pruitt at Neyland Stadium was an 8-yard blocked punt return by Marquill Osborne. Also in the first half, Bryce Thompson returned an interception of ETSU quarterback Logan Marchi to the 3-yard line, leading to the first of two rushing TDs for Jeremy Banks.
A couple of minutes later, Darren Kirkland had a 33-yard interception return for a TD.
“Defensively, we got two turnovers there and Marquill blocked a punt, so you’re talking about 21 points right there,” Pruitt said. “That’s good. We need to be opportunistic and to get more turnovers.”
Pruitt was the defensive coordinator for Alabama’s 2017 national championship team that had 19 interceptions and forced 13 fumbles — five recovered — for a plus-14 turnover margin. Playing against an FCS program in ETSU gave the Vols a chance to be aggressive.
It also gave them a huge confidence boost after getting beat 40-14 by West Virginia in Week 1. The defense, which gave up 544 total yards to the Mountaineers, held the Bucs to 194 yards and nine first downs. Overall, the Vols’ defense limited the Bucs to 2-for-15 on third-down conversions.
While it was Pruitt’s first home game and his first win as coach of the Vols, he didn’t rank it particularly high on his all-time list.
“I don’t see this as different as any other game I coached in,” he said. “I’m happy we won. Probably I get more ticked in the games we win because there is a standard we want to play to.
“Everything wasn’t perfect this week, the last couple of days, but we’re learning from it and I think it will make us a better football team and a better football program.”
Things might not have been perfect, but the numbers were solid. After the offense got off to a slow start with minus-1 rushing yards in the first quarter, the Vols turned it around and finished with 190 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
They made plays through the air as well, including three passes of 50 yards or more.
Starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano finished 8-of-13 passing for 154 yards and backup Kellen Chryst went 3-for-3 for 70 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown strike to Jordan Murphy.
Receiver Marquez Callaway hauled in five catches for 78 yards, the biggest a 51-yarder that set up a second-quarter touchdown. Josh Palmer caught another Guarantano pass for 51 yards in the first quarter and he scored on a 20-yard reverse for the final touchdown of the first half.
“I think it’s important that we’re efficient and I thought we were where we took care of the ball,” Pruitt said about the quarterback play. “For the most part, we stayed in the right plays offensively. Those guys are learning, developing and gaining confidence in the system they’re running. I thought it was a solid performance for both guys.”