The Tennessee Volunteers went down to Auburn, Ala. on Saturday and broke an 11-game losing streak in the SEC. The Vols earned this victory. Thanks to some dynamic players on both sides of the ball, Tennessee will come back to Knoxville with its head held high.
Major League Baseball’s slogan for the playoffs this year is “Let the kids play.” I don’t know how big of a baseball fan Vols offensive coordinator Tyson Helton is, but one could assume after Saturday’s performance that he took note of the campaign and applied it to his own craft. Or maybe he is just an avid Fox Sports Knox reader? After the Georgia game, I referenced the need for Helton to open up the playbook for Jarrett Guarantano. Either way, his decisions on the Plains Saturday revealed a newfound confidence in his quarterback and receivers.
Guarantano threw for a career-high 328 yards and was 21of-32. It seemed as though Helton finally let the redshirt sophomore lead this offense. Through much of the first half, the play-calling appeared to be more of what we’ve seen leading up to this game. The run game was emphasized, especially on first down. Sure, there was the occasional Ty Chandler check-down or Marquez Callaway back-shoulder throw, but for the most part, Tennessee seemed to be as predictable as ever.
However, big plays from the Vols’ most dynamic players kept drives alive and led to more success as the game progressed. In the first half, Guarantano connected with Chandler up the seam against busted coverage for a 43-yard score. That was the lone touchdown for the Vols in the half.
The defense also showed steady progression. After a devastating opening drive, the defense settled in and created consistent pressure on Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham. First, it was Paul Bain applying pressure and forcing an interception by way of freshman Bryce Thompson in the second quarter. Later in the quarter, Jonathan Kongbo caught an errant throw thanks to pressure from Baylen Buchanan. Credit these plays for Tennessee still being in the game going into halftime.
Early in the second half, the Vols had a chance to convert on fourth down in enemy territory. Helton opted to make an exchange in the backfield with a struggling offensive line versus one of the nation’s best defensive fronts. Things didn’t work out well for running back Madre London. Yet, the Vols held firm on defense and Helton redeemed himself. On the next possession, Tennessee converted three third downs in-a-row. The last was a 25-yard completion to Jauan Jennings for a touchdown. This seemed to be a turning point for Tennessee. Later in the quarter, the trio of Alexis Johnson, Kyle Phillips and Kongbo forced a fumble by Stidham. Alontae Taylor recovered the ball for a touchdown. From there, Auburn was unable to overcome the deficit.
Helton wore out the run on first downs. Other than a couple of decent runs in the first half, the Vols didn’t see much success on the ground. Who would have ever thought it was Guarantano’s arm that would win this game? Judging by Helton’s play-calling, he must have had confidence in the New Jersey product all along. If he didn’t, he found out by accident. Tennessee saw many third-and-long situations. In several of those instances, Helton dialed up back-shoulder throws to his receivers, namely Josh Palmer and Callaway. Guarantano made these long gains look like layups. Keep in mind that Auburn’s secondary is the obvious weak cog on defense. Yet, Guarantano looked confident and comfortable when throwing in the pocket.
The crazy thing is that Guarantano was a highly touted dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school. So far in his college career, he has shown the opposite set of skills. Don’t get me wrong, he is no Casey Clausen out there prancing around like a baby deer. He just shows no interest in running or manipulating the pocket with his feet. However, his arm proves he doesn’t need those measures.
Give credit to the offensive line. Auburn was credited with three sacks, but Guarantano stood tough as always and delivered with poise. This offensive unit did well enough against a superb defensive front to create just enough time for the quarterback to work. They also were able to set the edge for Tim Jordan and Chandler on a couple of occasions.
But, most of the credit goes to Helton, and of course Jeremy Pruitt, for finally dialing up plays for their best weapons. On defense, we saw Pruitt emphatically signal in a defensive call. What resulted was Deandre Johnson sacking Stidham on fourth down which practically sealed the deal for the Vols. On the other side of the ball, Helton kept trusting in his most dynamic weapons. Chandler had over 100 total yards including five receptions. Palmer, Callaway and Jennings were the other primary targets. The common denominator with these names is that they are Tennessee’s best playmakers. Whether it is October baseball or something that Helton ate for breakfast, the theme of targeting your best assets will only benefit this team going forward. The Vols can’t afford to be reluctant to stretch the defense, even against stout competition. After finally taking some shots with the most viable options, the Vols saw success. Both sides of the ball fed off another. What emerged was Tennessee’s best talent showcasing itself in front of a reeling Auburn team.
There is no reason to ever downplay an SEC road win. This was Tennessee’s first win over an SEC West opponent since 2010. Despite Auburn being on the verge of breaking, this win was huge for the University of Tennessee and its collective. It is important to note that this is BY FAR Gus Malzahn’s worst loss of his career. Teams don’t just roll into Jordan-Hare and come away with a victory that easy. In fact, Tennessee is the only team from the SEC East besides Georgia to accomplish this feat during Malzahn’s tenure. He now has eight total losses at home with Auburn. His previous “worst loss” was probably the wacky game against Arkansas in 2015, but that was in Little Rock. His losses at home have come to teams that were ranked when played or when the season ended. Will that trend continue?
Tennessee has joined good company. Albeit, at the hands of a Tiger team with chinks in their armor. This win is program-building for Rocky Top. If the Vols are able to expose their playmakers more consistently, then they can pull off more conference wins this season. They just have to let the kids play.