In one of the most beautiful nights to have a football game, the Tennessee Volunteers fell to the Auburn Tigers despite holding the Tigers to their lowest point total of the season. And for all the anticipation of the Monte Kiffin / Gus Malzahn matchup, the real story of the night belonged on the other side of the ball, where the Volunteers spotted the Tigers nearly an entire half through a series of offense-killing mistakes.
In the first quarter, Tennessee found their biggest play of the game early - a 41 yard rush by Nu'Keese Richardson out of the Wild-whatever formation that brought the Volunteers within field goal range on the first play of the game. Unfortunately, after gaining only two more yards, that field goal range failed to net any points as place kicker Daniel Lincoln missed wide right. The Volunteers defense held serve on the first possession by the Auburn offense, aided by a chop block call that negated a potential first down for the Tigers and eventually led them to punt. And after the touchback, things really went strange for the Volunteers.
A three-and-out forced the Vols to punt back to the Tigers, whose offense was able to come within field goal range and open the scoring for the night, 3-0. After the ensuing kickoff, the Volunteer offense quickly abandoned the field as Jonathon Crompton mishandled the snap and the Tigers recovered with a short field. Held to only 4 yards, the Tigers then settled for a second field goal to extend the early lead to 6-0. From there, the first half ended with a UT 3-and-out, and Auburn 3-and-out, and another UT 3-and-out.
For all of the anticipation of the Auburn offense vs. the Tennessee defense, the clear story of the first quarter was Crompton, who was responsible for the lone turnover of the game and whose inaccurate passing left the Volunteers with only one first down in the entire quarter - that first run by Nu'Keese Richardson. The wildly erratic passing thwarted any attempts at a balanced game and resulted in several long 3rd down attempts - all of which ended with more sketchy passes. But the score was still 6-0 at this point.
In the second quarter, the Tigers eventually gained a 13-0 lead after an 87 yard drive ended in an 11-yard touchdown run by Ben Tate. The Tennessee offense was absolutely stonewalled again in the second half - by the passing game - although the culprit was slightly different: this time, Crompton was finally getting the balls to the receivers but the receivers were dropping balls with both hands. Perhaps the archetypical moment came when Quintin Hancock, on a slant route, failed to prepare for the pass and received the ball straight into his face mask.
But as bad as it looked for the Volunteers through the rest of the half, the defense held firm and kept the Tigers from scoring when their place kicker Wes Byrum missed a 46-yard field goal attempt. At long last, with only a minute and a half left in the first half, the Volunteers put together a 70-yard touchdown drive, culminating in a 1-yard Montario Hardesty rush into the checkerboards. The extra point attempt was blocked, and the halftime score read 13-6 in favor of the Tigers.
And those four missed points (the extra point attempt and Lincoln's earlier missed field goal attempt) would turn out to haunt the Volunteers.
In the second half, the two teams traded 3-and-outs again. The Tigers, behind consecutive 32-yard and 15-yard rushes, closed to first and goal range on their second possession but had to settle for a field goal to lead 16-6. The scoring in the third quarter ended there, as neither team could gain any traction: Auburn's offense was being held in check by Tennessee's defense, and Tennessee's offense was still trying to find their rhythm. But in a drive the stretched over the quarter break, Auburn finally hit paydirt and scored another touchdown on a Chris Todd pass to Terrell Zachery to lead 23-6.
And, finally, the Tennessee offense decided to join the game. In a five-pass, two-rush drive, the Volunteers responded with their own touchdown on a 31-yard touchdown reception by Hardesty, which featured some of the niftiest running of the game as Hardesty fought off and eluded defenders for almost all of the 31 yards. After a hard-fought three-and-out forced by a tired Tennessee defense, the offense again answer the call, assembling an 18 play, 72 yard field goal drive that put the game back within reach at 23-16. But the effort put forth by the defense finally caught up to them; the Tigers answered with a field goal of their own after a 52-yard kick return gave them a short field. With only 39 seconds left on the clock, the Volunteers again found a way to the end zone, scoring 6 more points on the final play of the game. (The extra point was not tried as it would not have affected the outcome.)
Final score: 26-22. Four points - same as the number of missed points in the first half. That is most certainly not to say that the kicking game was to blame for the loss, as the ineptitude of the offense in the first half brought far more harm to Tennessee's hopes of winning. However, it does point out that, despite not playing offense for an entire half, the Volunteers were well within range of potentially winning the game late. For all of the negatives that come from the loss, there is much to be pleased with as well.
Notes: Auburn was 6-17 on third downs; Tennessee was 4-17 on third and 3-3 on 4th. The Tigers ran 83 plays to the Volunteer's 73, resulting in a total of 459 Auburn yards and 410 Tennessee yards of offense. Tennessee had their most penalty-laden game of the years: 4 for 30 yards. Jonathan Crompton's 20/43 for 259 yards and 2 touchdown night was good enough for a QB rating of 112 - very near his career average. Tennessee gained 213 of their 410 yards in the fourth quarter in 2-minute offense.
Did I mention it was a beautiful night outside?