KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Marquez Callaway knew if he could just get to the edge, there was a good chance he could score.
The junior wide receiver returned a punt for a touchdown and Tennessee’s defense nearly pitched a shutout as the Vols defeated Charlotte 14-3 in their final nonconference game of the season Saturday.
In the first meeting between the programs, Tennessee (4-5) kept its bowl hopes alive while snapping a two-game losing streak in front of a paltry announced homecoming crowd of 86,753 at Neyland Stadium.
Callaway’s first-quarter score was one of the few offensive bright spots for UT, which struggled to run the ball yet again and was held scoreless for the final three quarters.
Getting a bit of a running start, Callaway sprinted a career-high 82 yards for his second career punt return for a touchdown to give the Vols an early 7-0 lead.
“It was good to get into the end zone,” said Callaway, who scored for the first time this season. “The team was probably happy for me more than I was, especially a punt return because they always tell me if I can get to the edge we got our man and we promise you are going to make it.”
If Tennessee was hoping for a confidence-boosting offensive performance against a non-Power 5 opponent, the Vols didn’t find it against Charlotte (4-5).
The Vols were limited to just 192 total yards and equaled their season-low in points scored.
Charlotte entered the game ranked sixth in the FBS in rushing defense (88.9 yards), and improved its standing against an SEC opponent. The 49ers held the Vols to only 20 net rushing yards on 26 attempts for a 0.8 average per rush. Until UT’s final offensive drive in the fourth quarter, the Vols were in negative rushing yardage.
“We didn’t make any explosive plays and we really struggled to be consistent running the football. That is not a good recipe for success,” Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “We did find a way to create a positive play on special teams and that probably was the difference in the ball game really.”
After Callaway’s punt return, UT quarterback Jarrett Guarantano found Josh Palmer for a 16-yard touchdown pass to increase the lead to 14-0. The 14 points were the most UT has scored in the first quarter this season.
But the early production wasn’t a sign of things to come as the Vols offense bogged down for the remainder of the game. The Vols had only 93 yards of total offense in the first half, including zero rushing yards. Charlotte held its fourth straight opponent to 21 points or fewer.
“I really thought we were able to control the line of scrimmage. I really wasn’t sure of that coming into the game. Our guys up front played really well, and I was really proud of the tackling in the open field,” Charlotte head coach Brad Lambert said. “That is thing you worry about playing against an SEC team. I thought they tackled well and did a nice job getting them behind the chains.”
UT’s defense kept Charlotte from posing a serious threat for a comeback. The Vols recorded three sacks in the second half, and a fourth-down stop late in the fourth quarter secured the victory.
Guarantano completed 16 of 21 passes for 172 yards. Palmer had four catches for 71 yards. UT tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson had career highs in catches (3) and yards (53).
Charlotte quarterback Evan Shirreffs completed 13 of 25 passes for 152 yards and threw an interception in the final minute. Charlotte’s Benny LeMay rushed 24 times for 81 yards.
“I think a lot of us underestimated Charlotte,” Callaway said. “They’re a great team on offense and defense. I think we were ready to get onto Kentucky, and before doing that we had to take care of Charlotte and Charlotte really showed up and proved to us that we can’t overlook them.”
Tennessee: It wasn’t pretty, but the Vols did what was expected by beating their third non-Power 5 opponent this season. UT has won 30 straight against non-Power 5 opponents. But the Vols won’t be happy with the lackluster performance on both sides of the ball. They will need to bring more energy as they return to SEC play next weekend for the final three games of the regular season.
Charlotte: The 49ers are still searching for their first win over a Power 5 opponent. Charlotte fell to 0-4 all-time against Power 5 programs, including 0-2 against SEC opponents. But the 49ers can take some confidence from their defensive performance. Redshirt sophomore punter Kyle Corbett booted a punt a school-record 75 yards in the fourth quarter that landed at the UT 3-yard line.
UT freshman defensive back Alontae Taylor was ejected for targeting for the second time this season when he lunged at Shirreffs in the first quarter while Shirreffs was sliding. The Vols have been penalized for targeting three times this season. Linebacker Daniel Bituli was ejected in the second half against Auburn.
“I have no idea if it was targeting or what,” Pruitt said. “But I obviously don’t know what targeting is…. I don’t think anybody knows to tell you the truth.”