CHARLOTTE, N.C. — No. 17 West Virginia dominated Tennessee 40-14 to claim the Belk Kickoff championship, which meant store credit for apparel and bedding, and the awesomeness of being 1-0.
Recapping the drive-by-drive updates for the first-ever meeting between these Appalachian neighbors:
Sills caught a 38-yarder and Tevon Wesco added a career-long 29-yard grab as WVU traveled the length of the field. The Mountaineers bypassed a would-be field-goal attempt when Tennesee jumped offsides on fourth-and-2. (Drive: 8 plays, 98 yards in 4:41 )
— DOWNS: Tennessee marched 61 yards to the 2 before a fourth-down incompletion in the back of the end zone. That was Guarantano’s only misfire on a 6-of-7 series that include hookups of 20 and 22 yards with Marquez Callaway.
— TURNOVER: West Virginia’s string of touchdown drives ended when McKoy fumbled at the Tennessee 37. Before that, Grier converted a third-and-11 by hitting Jennings for 22 yards.
— PUNT: A curious decision by the Vols to kick it from midfield, down 18 in the fourth quarter. Sure, it was a fourth-and-12 but UT also faced a three-possession deficit.
McKoy entered for his first snap late in the third quarter and slithered out of the backfield uncovered for the easy third-down score, making West Virginia 3-for-3 on TD drives in the period. The key play involved Jennings catching a 30-yarder in tight coverage by not tipping off the cornerback that a pass was incoming. Leddie Brown carried five times, mostly between the tackles, for 19 yards as the Mountaineers produced a grind-it-out series. (Drive: 9 plays, 78 yards in 4:54 )
So much for Tennessee not being built to play from behind. Jordan gained 30 on the first play of the series, and the Vols roared downfield without facing a single third down. A chance at a tipped interception was negated when West Virginia’s Josh Norwood was called for interference on the breakup. (Drive: 5 plays, 75 yards in 2:00 )
Gary Jennings caught a TD in his second straight season opener, with about 90 catches in the interim without one. Looks like pulling-away time for the Mountaineers. Martell Pettaway broke loose for a 22-yard run and added a 3-yard carry on third-and-1. (Drive: 7 plays, 60 yards in 2:49 )
— PUNT: Tennessee went three-and-out. Even better news for WVU: Kenny Bigelow returned at nose tackle after a first-half trip to the locker room.
After a 65-minute weather delay, the Mountaineers answered lightning with more lightning, starting the second half with a blistering touchdown drive. Grier’s third-and-8 slant pass to Marcus Simms went for 32 yards when Bryce Thompson missed the tackle. Then Grier caught the Vols on a corner blitz and Sills ran past safety Trevon Flowers for the score. (Drive: 4 plays, 68 yards in 2:06 )
— A lightning delay pre-empted the Tennessee band’s halftime performance and cleared the stadium. The second half was slated to re-start at 6:16 p.m.
— Total offense: WVU leads 195-135.
— QBs: Grier 9-of-15 for 154 yards and one score, while Guarantano is 10-of-13 for 91 yards and a TD.
— Time of possession: Vols hold massive edge 21:06 to 8:54.
The Mountaineers would have started at their 10 if not for a post-punt unsportsmanlike conduct flag on Tennessee. Grier hit Sills on a play-action crossing route for 18 yards and wound up completing 3-of-4 for 40 yards on the drive. He also was sacked once and forced to scramble on two other dropbacks, leaving WVU short on time as the half approached. Ultimately, Staley delivered the kick after Jeremy Pruitt twice tried to ice him with timeouts. (Drive: 8 plays, 72 yards in 1:52)
— PUNT: After gaining 17 on Tim Jordan’s burst, Tennessee faced a second-and-3 at the WVU 40 but got nothing more. That gave WVU’s offense a chance before half.
— PUNT: The Mountaineers went three-and-out and missed another big play when Grier overthrew Alec Sinkfield on a wheel route.
The Vols drained more than half of the second quarter and capitalized on a gutsy fourth-and-goal decision by Jeremy Pruitt. After being stoned on three running plays, Tennessee had the football sitting on the 2-yard line when Pruitt called timeout and kept his offense on the field. A play-action fake let the tight end slip unnoticed into the back of the end zone. Guarantano worked the short game by going 5-for-6 for 40 yards. (Drive: 17 plays, 78 yards in 8:47)
— PUNT: West Virginia went three-and-out but only after a potential 57-yard touchdown pass from Grier to Sills unraveled when the receiver lost his footing. When Tennessee partially blocked the punt, Billy Kinney benefited from a fortunate roll for a 34-yard net to the Vols’ 22.
— PUNT: The Vols went backward thanks to a sack by Reese Donahue and twin penalties (WVU chose to enforce the one for offensive interference). Then came an SEC staple of yesteryear: the third-and-22 draw.
Backed up at its 15, WVU blistered downfield with Grier going 3-for-3. He hit Jennings for 9 yards and Sills for 10 before Simmons introduced himself with a huge catch-and-run down the WVU sideline. The Alabama transfer outran three Vols defenders with assistance from a deep block by Marcus Simms. (Drive: 5 plays, 85 yards in 2:18)
— PUNT: Tennessee converted two third-and-longs as Guarantano hit Jennings and Palmer for gains of 16 and 17 yards. But the drive stalled near midfield when a blitzing Toyous Avery belted the Vols QB helmetless to force an incompletion.
In the red zone, a touchdown slipped through the hands of a double-covered Sills before Grier’s third-down jumpball for Jovanni Haskins was batted away. Sills caught a 25-yarder earlier in the possession as WVU overcame a holding flag on Yodny Cajuste. There also was a new/old wrinkle with Tevin Bush taking a Jet sweep out of a double-tight end formation. (Drive: 7 plays, 39 yards in 2:25)
— PUNT: Tennessee regressed 15 yards on its opening drive, 10 of those on a Kenny Bigelow hit that forced a backward pass. Ty Chandler’s third-and-20 draw lost another 5 yards.
— It’s 91 degrees as we near kickoff. Humidity has climbed to 50 percent, lifting the “feels-like” temp to 98. There will be cramping. There’s always cramping.
— The Mountaineers are trying to break a three-game losing streak, and what’s worse … they haven’t led in any of those losses. That’s 180 minutes of game time elapsed since WVU last led in a game (at the end of that victory over K-State).
—Bank of America Stadium has grass, which hasn’t been kind to West Virginia of late. Five straight losses on the natural stuff since beating BYU at FedEx Field in 2016.
— Will Grier and Kennedy McKoy are back in their home states, but D-line coach Bruce Tall has memories of Charlotte also. He was part of the staff that launched UNC-Charlote’s football program in 2015.
“Everything was built from scratch,” he said. “I was living in the dorm and I’d walk around the old rec field, knowing that was going to be the home stadium.”
How difficult was luring recruits to a program that didn’t exist?
“You had to sell them in pictures,” Tall said in reference to the artist renderings of future facilities. Two of Tall’s signees, Brandon Banks (Colts) and Larry Ogunjobi (Browns), are in the NFL.
“I guess they believed in the pictures,” he said.
— WVMetroNews staff picks: All of us selected West Virginia today.