KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee insists it isn’t dwelling on its blown lead from a week ago or looking ahead as it takes a break from Southeastern Conference competition to face Conference USA program Charlotte.
There’s too much at stake.
After squandering a 21-9 second-half lead in a 27-24 loss at South Carolina last week, Tennessee must win three of its last four games to become bowl eligible .
“We’ve just got to focus on our game plan this week and focus on Charlotte,” Tennessee linebacker Daniel Bituli said. “They’re a really good team. If we were to focus on these upcoming games, it would really derail us.”
Tennessee (3-5) has done a good job of avoiding these types of pitfalls against Group of Five teams. The Vols have won their last 29 home games against teams that aren’t part of the Power Five.
Charlotte owns a 4-4 record this season after going 1-11 a year ago. Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt says his team won’t take this 21-point underdog lightly.
“If somebody’s looking at it that way, they’re not ready to play,” Pruitt said. “These guys have a better record than we do. If you look at them statistically, they’re better than us in probably every statistical category. They have 85 guys on scholarship just like we do. We’ll have to be at our best to give ourselves a chance to have success Saturday.”
Tennessee gets the opportunity Saturday to work on its rushing offense and run defense - two areas that have proved troublesome this season.
The Vols rank last in the SEC in yards rushing per game (141.1) and yards per carry (3.6). They also are 11th in rushing yards allowed per game (169.8) and are 13th in yards allowed per carry (4.8).
Charlotte’s task is to avoid getting intimidated by a setting unlike anything the 49ers have encountered before.
“You can’t let the environment affect you,” Charlotte coach Brad Lambert said. “It’s hard because it’s so big. We’ve been to Louisville (in 2016). We’ve been to Kentucky (in 2015). We went to Kansas State (in 2017), which is extremely loud. But they aren’t necessarily as big a stadium as this. This will be the biggest stadium by far that our kids have played in. It will be kind of a shock to them, I’m sure, when they walk in.”
Here are some other things to watch Saturday when Tennessee hosts Charlotte.
Charlotte linebacker Juwan Foggie has a school-record six interceptions to lead all Football Bowl Subdivision players , and he’s scored on two interception returns. He will try to get a seventh interception against Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who hasn’t been picked off in his last 105 attempts. Guarantano has thrown only two interceptions all season.
Lambert says he’s concerned by the size of Tennessee receivers Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings. The 6-foot-2 Callaway has 27 catches for 372 yards. Jennings is 6-3 and has 26 receptions for 335 yards and three touchdowns. Charlotte’s starting cornerbacks are 5-11 D.J. Anderson and 5-9 Nafees Lyon.
Charlotte quarterback Evan Shirreffs is a graduate transfer from Miami. Shirreffs will be making his third start since taking over for Chris Reynolds, who underwent season-ending ankle surgery last month.
ON THE RUN
SEC teams generally enjoy major physical advantages in matchups with Conference USA teams, but Charlotte’s stats suggest the Vols may not be able to run wild this week. Charlotte is ranked sixth among all FBS teams in run defense and is allowing 3.1 yards per carry and 89.8 yards rushing per game.
WATCH OUT FOR LeMAY
Charlotte running back Benny LeMay has rushed for 745 yards while averaging 5.3 yards per carry. He also has 16 catches for 226 yards.