By STEVE MEGARGEE AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Jarrett Guarantano threw three touchdown passes and Tennessee rolled to a 45-0 blowout of Football Championship Subdivision program Chattanooga as the Volunteers began digging their way out of their slowest start in over three decades.
Tennessee (1-2) is trying to bounce back from its first 0-2 start since 1988, when the Vols dropped their first six games before finishing 5-6. The lopsided victory over Chattanooga (1-2) provides Tennessee a momentum boost before the Vols open Southeastern Conference play next week to begin a grueling monthlong stretch.
In its next four games, Tennessee visits No. 9 Florida, hosts No. 3 Georgia and Mississippi State and visits No. 2 Alabama. The Vols do get a week off between the Florida and Georgia games.
Chattanooga coach Rusty Wright spent the last two seasons working as an assistant on Shawn Elliott’s staff at Georgia State, which stunned Tennessee 38-30 as a 26-point underdog two weeks ago. But Wright’s current team couldn’t come close to producing a similar stunner.
Tennessee instead forced five turnovers and took the suspense out of this one early. The Vols capitalized on Chattanooga’s mistakes to grab a 21-0 lead in the game’s first 6 ½ minutes.
Ty Chandler returned the opening kickoff 58 yards to set up his own 13-yard touchdown run around left end. After Chattanooga went three-and-out on its first series, Tyler Byrd blocked a punt and Brandon Johnson picked up the loose ball and ran 24 yards into the end zone.
Chattanooga’s next series ended when Nigel Warrior picked off a Nick Tiano pass and delivered a 22-yard interception return before going out of bounds at the Mocs’ 16-yard line. The turnover set up a 12-yard touchdown pass from Guarantano to Jauan Jennings, who has scored four times already this season.
Guarantano, who hadn’t played well in Tennessee’s first two games, made sure that lead stood up.
He threw touchdown passes of 39 yards to Marquez Callaway and 28 yards to Cedric Tillman in the second quarter as Tennessee built a 38-0 halftime lead. Guarantano went 7 of 8 for 142 yards before sitting out the second half.
Guarantano’s three touchdown passes set a new career single-game high for the junior, who was making his 21st start. Jeremy Banks sparked Tennessee’s defense by recording two interceptions.
Chattanooga: The Mocs made far too many mistakes to have a chance of competing with a Southeastern Conference team. The early blocked punt and interception enabled Tennessee to build its 21-0 lead. Chattanooga punter Colin Brewer also mishandled a snap early in the third quarter to set up another Tennessee touchdown. An offensive pass interference penalty wiped out Chattanooga’s only touchdown. The Mocs reached the red zone on three separate drives, but they committed turnovers on two of those series and lost the ball on downs the other time.
Tennessee: It’s tough to tell whether the lopsided result really indicates Tennessee has improved after its 0-2 start because Chattanooga was such an overmatched opponent. But the Vols have to feel cautiously optimistic about the way Guarantano bounced back from his struggles of the first two weeks. Tennessee’s ability to force turnovers was encouraging, as the Vols had produced just 16 takeaways in the first 14 games of Jeremy Pruitt’s coaching tenure.
Chattanooga hosts James Madison on Saturday.
Tennessee visits No. 9 Florida on Saturday.
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