If nothing else, Guarantano certainly has proved the last month he knows how to take a hit.
Guarantano bounced back from a miserable week and threw two touchdown passes, and Tennessee withstood the absence of injured starting quarterback Brian Maurer in a 41-21 Southeastern Conference victory over South Carolina on Saturday.
“I was just very happy with these guys,” Guarantano said. “I love seeing the smiles on their faces when they win. That’s really the most important thing to me right now.”
Tennessee (3-5, 2-3) outscored South Carolina 24-0 in the second half to end a three-game skid in this annual series.
With Maurer unavailable after sustaining concussions each of the last two weeks, Guarantano and redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout shared the quarterback duties and combined to throw for a season-high 351 yards.
That represented a stunning turnaround for Guarantano, who was roasted around town and on social media after his fourth-and-goal fumble in a 35-13 loss to No. 1 Alabama last week was returned 100 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.
Guarantano already had endured a difficult season even before that turnover. After making 22 career starts, he was benched in favor of Maurer earlier this month.
“I’ve been really happy,” he said after the game, tongue firmly in cheek. “Everything’s been going pretty smooth.”
Guarantano apologized to his coaches and teammates for the fumble and vowed to “work my tail off” from this point on. He said he leaned on his faith and followed the advice of cousins who suggested he smile more.
He responded Saturday by hitting 11 of 19 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns to Jauan Jennings. Guarantano entered on Tennessee’s third series and remained in the game until breaking a bone in his left, non-throwing hand on the go-ahead touchdown.
Guarantano took a big hit from T.J. Brunson while throwing a 19-yard pass in the back of the end zone to Jennings, who gave Tennessee a 28-24 lead by hanging on to the ball even after taking a shot from R.J. Roderick. Earlier in the game, Jennings caught a 48-yard touchdown in which he broke three tackles on his way to the end zone.
“Jauan has passion for the game,” Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “He has passion for his teammates. He has passion for the University of Tennessee. He shows it every single day.”
Although the hit from Brunson knocked Guarantano from the game, Tennessee scored again on its next series when Callaway caught Shrout’s first career touchdown pass. Shrout finished 7-of-11 passing for 122 yards.
Jennings ended up with seven catches for a career-high 174 yards and two touchdowns. Callaway had three receptions for 102 yards and scored on a 65-yard punt return.
“We didn’t cover 15 and 1,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said, referring to Jennings’ and Callaway’s jersey numbers. “We had a hard time matching up on those guys.”
Big plays enabled South Carolina (3-5, 2-4) to grab a 21-17 halftime lead.
Gamecocks quarterback Ryan Hilinski, who went 28-for-51 for 319 yards, connected with Shi Smith for a 75-yard touchdown on the game’s first snap. Late in the second quarter, Bryan Edwards reached his right arm overhead and made a spectacular one-handed, 18-yard catch on the right sideline to set up a Tavien Feaster 1-yard TD run.
But it was all Tennessee the rest of the way.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks simply couldn’t cover Jennings and Callaway, and their offense fell apart after halftime. South Carolina now can only lose once more the rest of the season to become bowl eligible. Vanderbilt, No. 21 Appalachian State, Texas A&M and No. 4 Clemson are left on the schedule.
Tennessee: The Vols boosted their bowl hopes because their best players delivered big-time performances. Jennings and Callaway are Tennessee’s top two playmakers on offense, and both came up huge. Darrell Taylor had two sacks and broke up a fourth-down pass before getting hurt early in the fourth quarter. Daniel Bituli had 15 stops and blocked a punt and pounced on the ball in the end zone for Tennessee’s final touchdown.
Jennings, a former high school quarterback, took the first snap for Tennessee. Shrout then took over for most of the first two series with occasional Wildcat help from Jennings before Guarantano entered. After Guarantano got hurt, Shrout took over.
Jennings was the first Tennessee player to have two touchdowns and at least 150 yards receiving in a game since Justin Hunter did it against Troy in 2012. ... Edwards became South Carolina’s career leader in receptions with 211. Kenny McKinley had 207 catches for the Gamecocks from 2005-08.
South Carolina hosts Vanderbilt on Saturday.
Tennessee hosts UAB on Saturday.