By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – October 13, 2018)
Be honest, Vols fan, when did you feel comfortable thinking Tennessee was going to beat Auburn on the road today? It’s been such a tragedy of futility and calamity over the past few years that I’d imagine even with 2:00 remaining, you were probably still worried as Auburn had the ball down 13. At 30-24 even after the onside, did you allow yourself to breathe?
Well, it’s time to celebrate in Knoxville. This is a ranked Auburn team on the road and Jeremy Pruitt’s team outplayed them…and he outcoached Gus Malzahn in the process. The Vols showed up believing they could win, and despite infuriating first down play calling from Tyson Helton, the Vols were better. Auburn’s season is officially done, even though it already was as far as any Playoff talk was concerned.
It’s an SEC win on the road when Tennessee was a 16 point underdog. It’s huge, no matter how you slice it. Here are my Big 6 Takeaways from the 30-24 win over Auburn.
WAIT, AUBURN WAS RANKED?
The Tigers entered this game reeling, losing not just to LSU but also to an inconsistent Mississippi State team, and on third down, Malzahn’s squad was just 32.5% on third down conversions. Tennessee wasn’t much better, but Auburn was also fresh off a 3-14 performance in that category last week. Jarrett Stidham shows you a lot of throws you like, but if you can pressure him, he’s prone to a key blunder.
The Vols pressured him, and when they did, he did as he has all season long: He coughed it up. He fumbled once, he threw two really bad interceptions that both should have been thrown into the stands, and when he had protection and time in the pocket, he was accurate downfield. He and Darius Slayton couldn’t connect in the first half for what would have been a touchdown. In the fourth quarter, the same thing happened between the same two guys on the same sideline (though in opposite directions).
The first was on Stidham for overthrowing his target just enough to make the catch far more difficult than it should have been. The second was on Slayton, who got behind the cornerback and just flat out dropped it. Both the INTs were on the QB, who simply can’t make the decisions he did and expect to give his team a chance.
Defensively, Auburn bottled up the run fairly well, but Jarrett Guarantano and the receivers managed several chunk plays that have been notably absent to this point in the season. Speaking of which…
JG WAS MONEY BABY…AND WE ALL KNEW IT
On the Tennessee Tailgate Show, Joey Kent and I have both lamented the lack of downfield play calling in the pass game from Tyson Helton. At Auburn, Helton did plenty I didn’t care for, which we’ll get to a bit later, but he also gave Guarantano some shots down the field to his underrated receivers. As a result, Marquez Callaway had a nice day, Jauan Jennings had a big day, and Josh Palmer had a huge day. JG was perfect with his ball placement throughout much of the afternoon, and Auburn’s secondary couldn’t handle him.
Nine guys caught passes for Tennessee in the victory, with five snagging multiple balls in the contest. 328 yards receiving for Vols receivers on 21 catches, which has to make one exhale. Jarrett didn’t turn it over… while JARRETT in navy and orange threw it twice to the opponent and fumbled it. 21/32 with two scores for Guarantano and on 3rd and 8+ yards, he was 8-8 for 168 yards and a touchdown, converting seven first downs. Overall, Tennessee was 7-10 on the day in third and long situations.
If you let him wing it, he can wing it. These receivers were there for him, which is a really good thing, because…
YEESH ON THAT RUNNING GAME
It’s not as much on the backs as it is Tyson Helton, who decided on every single first down play in the second half…he was going to run it straight up the gut against the Auburn front. Ty Chandler needs space, and with a shaky offensive line, what’s the advantage here. Analytics types like Warren Sharp and Football Outsiders have now proven it’s better to throw the ball on first down at least 65% of the time in the NFL. No reason that wouldn’t be the case in college either.
It was painfully obvious what we were going to see on every series, and what it led to was 36 carries for 68 yards. That’s pathetic. The ball carriers weren’t given an opportunity to shine in any respect. Chandler and Tim Jordan both had one carry for 18 yards, but other than that it was a lot for a little. When you’ve got speed with 8 out there, why you aren’t trying more swing passes and screens to get him a little room boggles the mind.
Again, the blame falls on the coordinator…
HELTON MUST BE BETTER
No excuse not to try throwing the ball down the field until the Auburn game, especially with a beaten and tired offensive line. Guarantano can throw it, these receivers are effort guys, particularly Jennings, who had been nearly invisible until Saturday against the Tigers.
The Vols offense on first down was maddening, as just once in the second half did Tennessee attempt a pass. Guess what happened when they did. 42 yard bomb to Josh Palmer down the field that led to a Cimaglia chip-shot FG to extend the lead. With that exception, it was all runs on first down, and nothing dramatic. It was basic handoffs. It was dull and it didn’t work, and we all realized it wasn’t working, and yet it continued to happen.
Tyson Helton is a rookie coordinator and maybe he’ll learn, but this team is better off, without question, with the ball in Guarantano’s hands early, opening up running lanes after getting a team to respect his ability to throw it downfield for big gains. Ty Chandler would be far more effective if it weren’t so obvious when and more importantly how he would be used, which very often is not in the most advantageous of situations.
PRESSURE WAS THE KEY
Stidham under pressure was terrible. Stidham with time was dangerous. The Tennessee secondary gave up its share of yardage, but due to the pass rush in crucial moments, Auburn’s quarterback couldn’t stop himself from turning the football over three times. Early in the game, Bryce Thompson knocked away a possible touchdown on a 3rd and Goal. He would then, due to a blitz, pick Stidham off on the first of Jarrett’s two bad choices.
Both these plays came early, as did a not-so-good moment where he took a bad angle and couldn’t finish a tackle on Anthony Schwartz, who has a 10.09 clocked 100 meter dash, the fastest in the country last year as a sprinter.
Guys made plays when they had to, even if it was inconsistent at times. Kongbo had an INT, but he also was on crutches as the game ended, which is something to monitor. We saw Nigel Warrior make a few big tackles, including one for a loss on a swing pass in the first half. The young secondary continues to improve from game to game, but is still susceptible to letting receivers get behind them.
JEREMY PRUITT Y’ALL
He gets his first “real” win at Tennessee and does it on the road at Auburn in a game where he was animated from the jump. He wants to see these guys win and he wants progress. He shed a few tears after the loss to Georgia because he noticed the effort his kids were playing with that day. For as mediocre as Tyson Helton has been (at best), Pruitt has been pretty good outside of one bad day on the sidelines against Florida, where disaster wasn’t strong enough a descriptor for everyone in Vol orange.
As the third quarter came to an end against the Tigers, Pruitt was running around and jumping, fist pounding like he was Eldrick on a Sunday in a red polo, and his energy was impossible to miss. He’s recruiting ballhawks for the future on defense, but he’s also showing his expertise in coaching DBs as his freshmen are improving and he’s trusting them more often in one-on-one scenarios.
His team played turnover-free football on Saturday, and despite some very avoidable procedure penalties and mental mistakes that cost yardage and first downs, the Vols looked BETTER in almost every facet on the field.
Is Auburn good? It appears they’re not, but they’re Auburn. Tennessee was a 16 point underdog. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t Alabama. This was gigantic and Coach Pruitt deserves credit for any SEC win in 2018, much less an SEC West win on the road. The Vols hadn’t beaten a team from the West since November 13, 2010. The Vols hadn’t beaten an SEC team period since November 19, 2016. It matters. Congrats Vol fan. Enjoy this one.
THE LAST WORD
Auburn is not a ranked football team. Well, they are, but they won’t be as of the next poll, and they shouldn’t be. After the first drive, where Malzahn had his way with Tennessee’s defense and marched methodically down the field with his usual tempo and put up the game’s opening touchdown, the Vols played better football. It was basically even at the half, with no sense of momentum for either team. That said, Tennessee down 17-13, considering the spread and being on the road, felt like…hmmm they might have a chance.
The second half was Tennessee’s from the jump. 30-24 wasn’t indicative of the win, as the Vols were the superior team on Sunday. Are they in talent? Assuredly not. But games aren’t won by star ratings, uniform colors, or anything else. They’re won on the field.
And Tennessee handled that business. Next up, it’s Alabama. That will be a tough day, yes, but this win should give Vols fans a little hope once Nick Saban leaves Knoxville. The SEC East matchups, provided Tennessee can stay healthy, should at least be dramatic.