Georgia State wasn’t supposed to stand a chance in Knoxville on Saturday. However, no one told that to the Panthers.
Tennessee was stunned inside Neyland Stadium in a 38-30 loss in the opening game of 2019. It was the was first loss in the home opener since 1983.
“The best team out there won the game today,” Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “The team that played the best, executed the best, outcoached us. It starts with that. Georgia State’s staff did a great job on both sides of the ball.”
At times, it looked like the programs had flip-flopped roles as the Sun Belt’s Georgia State didn’t look like the program being paid $950,000 to show up for what was supposed to be a non-conference win for the Vols.
“They wanted it a little bit more than we did, and it showed,” Senior Nigel Warrior said.
Instead, it was Tennessee who didn’t seem to have answers – especially in the second half.
“I would say it’s an eye opener,” Outside Linebacker Darrell Taylor said. “It makes us realize that no one is going to come out on the field and just give us the game. From offense to defense, I think we all have to play better. I think it’s a wakeup call that’s making us think that we have to play better, we have to come better, and we have to practice better. We’ve got to come harder in practice, we’ve got to get in the film room even more now just because of the way we played in our first game. I definitely think it’s an eye opener, and this will make us better in the future.”
The second play of the game didn’t go the way of the Vols, and that set the tone for the rest of the evening.
On a swing pass, Ty Chandler bobbled the ball and the ensuing fumble was received by Georgia State at the Tennessee 23. The Panthers took a 7-0 lead six plays late as Seth Paige scored on a four-yard run.
The Vols answered on the ensuing drive in a dominant way. Tennessee marched down the field on a 16-play drive that took nearly eight minutes off the clock, and the drive was capped by a Jarrett Guarantano pass to Marquez Calloway that covered six yards for the score.
The Tennessee dense forced a quick three-and-out on the next drive, and the Vols took their first lead of the game when Chandler scored on a 31-yard run to give UT a 14-7 after a quarter of play.
In the second quarter, Georgia State had a 16-play drive of their own in the middle of the second as the Panthers tied the game on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Dan Ellington. Tennessee had an undecisive start to the last drive of the half as they looked to want to run the clock out before 34-yard pass to Juan Jennings put UT at midfield.
From there, the Vols used a two-minute drill and moved to the Georgia State 2 in the closing seconds of the quarter. The drive, however, didn’t end in a touchdown as Tennessee was forced to kick a Brett Cimaglia field goal to take a 17-14 lead into the locker room.
In the second half, the Panthers regained the lead with a nine-play drive that covered 75 yards to open the half. Tennessee closed the gap in the later stages of the quarter with a Cimaglia field goal as UT trailed 21-20 going to the fourth.
Tennessee appeared to settle down early in the fourth as Cimaglia pushed the Vols back in front with a. 31-yard field goal with 12 minutes left in the game.
Georgia State – it turned out – wasn’t going down without a fight.
The Panthers moved the ball efficiently on the next drive and Tra Bennett regained the lead with a 19-yard touchdown run. The next two Tennessee drives ended in turnovers as Georgia State reeled off 17 unanswered points to take control of the game and set off the celebration amongst the small but vocal group of Panther fans who made the trek to Neyland Stadium.
The Vols got back on the board with two seconds remaining as Guarantano found Jennings for an 18-yard touchdown, but it was too late to stop the stunner.
Guarantano finished 26-of-40 with 311 yards and two touchdowns. Jennings led the receiving core as he had seven catches for 108 yards.
Dom Wood-Anderson and Eric Gray had 79 and 51 receiving yards, respectively, while Ty Chandler led the Tennessee rushing attack with 50 yards on six carries.
In all, Tennessee outgunned Georgia State 404-352 in total offensive yards.
“I don’t think we played our best ball,” Pruitt said. “I think Georgia State had a lot to do with that. It’s always about how hard you play. But if you’re playing really hard and you’re running in the wrong direction, that’s not good. If you’re playing really hard and you’re not blocking the right guy, or if you’re supposed to run this route, but you see it a different way and run another one, it’s hard to have success. And we probably had too much of that.”
“Again, I’m not blaming the kids. Like I told the players in the locker room, everybody needs to look in the mirror, because it’s what I’m going to do and say, ‘What can I do better for our football team?’ And I’m going to start with me.”
Tennessee has a short time to rebound as the Vols host BYU next Saturday night.
“Are we all disappointed today? Sure, we are,” Pruitt said. “But the sun is going to come up tomorrow, and we are going to play BYU starting tomorrow. We have to bring our best game next Saturday.”