What seemed like a distant fantasy at one point this season turned into a reality on Saturday as the Tennessee Volunteers went on the road and defeated the Auburn Tigers to give Jeremy Pruitt his first SEC win as head coach.
Not only did Pruitt receive his conference-christening, but the Vols ended an 11-game SEC losing streak that dated all the way back to the 2016 season.
The game couldn’t have started worse for the Vols as Auburn’s offense marched right down the field and scored a touchdown on the game’s first possession. The 14-play, 75 yard drive took a little over five minutes off the clock and the Tigers converted all three of their third down conversions.
The defense had a few opportunities to stop the Tigers, but poor tackling gave them extra chances. Auburn’s offense was very creative, using the running game to set up a couple of big plays.
The Vols were able to get down the field quickly on their next drive thanks to Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan - they combined for 60 yards on five touches - but good coverage on Marquez Callaway by Jemel Dean halted the drive and Tennessee settled on a 42-yard field goal from Brent Cimaglia.
Down 7-3, Tennessee’s defense allowed Auburn to drive right back down to their 3-yard line, but the defense held tough as Bryce Thompson knocked away a Stidham pass in the end zone. Anders Carlson made the ensuing field goal to extend the Tiger lead to seven, 10-3.
Tennessee’s youth showed through on the next drive. It was the epitome of growing pains as the Vols missed a couple of key opportunities for big plays. A miscommunication on first down led to a terrible overthrow by Jarrett Guarantano and Jordan Murphy dropped a difficult catch that would’ve set the Vols up in great field position.
But Callaway came through with a huge 38-yard catch on third down to get the Vols moving. An insane combination of ball skills and concentration led to the catch and Callaway finished up nicely as he usually does.
More Callaway targets please pic.twitter.com/Mlt2Sdfvys— Terry Lambert (@TLambertFB) October 13, 2018
An illegal substitution penalty forced the Vols to have to work behind the chain and it led to a blocked 48-yard field goal attempt by Cimaglia.
Auburn’s defense took the field and at this point, the Vols’ defense needed a big play.
Well, the Vols asked and they received on the second play of the Tigers’ next possession. Pressure from Darrell Taylor and Alexis Johnson Jr. forced a bad throw from Stidham that was picked off by Thompson.
The Vols were able to overcome a killer formation penalty on Josh Palmer that negated a 39-yard pass to Chandler down the sidelines en route to their first touchdown of the day. Guarantano found a wide-open Chandler over the middle and the talented back did the rest for a game-tying, 42-yard touchdown that made the score 10-10.
A great catch by the Tigers’ Seth Williams on a 3rd-and-9 moved the chains on the next possession and they looked to be in business. They tried to be a bit too cute, however, as a Wildcat play saw Stidham throw straight into Jonathon Kongbo’s gut and the big man rumbled all the way into Tiger territory after the interception.
This was the perfect opportunity for UT to take the lead, but a false start penalty and a third down sack led to the game’s first punt and the Vols went right back on defense.
Stidham made up for his latest interception, finding track star Anthony Schwartz on a comeback route over the middles. Schwartz was able to avoid a tackle by Thompson and outraced the entire defense for a 75-yard touchdown to push the Auburn lead to 17-10.
The fastest college football player in the country — Anthony Schwartz pic.twitter.com/YVFAkLN7XY— Power of Dixieland (@PwrofDixieland) October 13, 2018
UT went three-and-out on their next drive. Punter Joe Doyle nailed a 64-yard punt that gave the Vols a great roll and bounce, pinning Auburn at their own 2-yard line.
Tennessee was able to force a three-and-out of their own and were now set up at their own 48 with a chance to get some points before halftime.
Good play-calling and great awareness by Guarantano helped the Vols advance to the Tigers’ 28. This time, the Tigers couldn’t get past the Vols’ front line and Cimaglia nailed his second kick of the game and cut the lead to four, 17-13.
The Vols received the ball to start the second half. They were able to make some big plays thanks to Callaway and Chandler, but a great stop by the Tigers’ Marlon Davidson on a 3rd-and-1 run left Jeremy Pruitt with a big decision.
Would he go for it on 4th-and-short despite the fact that Auburn had shut down the inside running game up until this point? What play could offensive coordinator Tyson Helton have up his sleeve to get the conversion?
The attempt at an answer was simple: run Madre London up the gut. That didn’t work, however, as London was stuffed for a loss and the Tigers took right back over with great field position.
Tennessee’s defense came back with a huge three-and-out thanks to a poor throw by Stidham on a 3rd-and-7.
The next drive for the Vols was summed up in one word: clutch. A big sack on second down left the Vols with a huge 3rd-and-11 that was converted off a catch by Jennings over the middle. A few plays later, Josh Palmer made his second catch of the game after Guarantano threw a dime down the sideline for a 36-yard catch.
But the biggest play of all came on 3rd-and-10 from the Tiger 25. Guarantano ripped another dime, this time to Jennings, who did his thing and came through with a clutch, physical catch to give the Vols their first SEC lead in over a year, 20-17.
Defensive back Jeremiah Dinson was ejected for targeting on the play, furthering the bad luck for the Tigers.
How would a struggling Auburn team respond?
The question was answered quickly on the next drive, but not by the Tigers. Inside pressure by Johnson Jr. for the second time forced a Stidham fumble that was recovered by Alontae Taylor in the end zone to push the lead to double-digits, 27-17.
Stidham finally started to work out of his slump on the next drive, making a couple of big throws to get the offense downfield. But increasing pressure from the Vols led to a 4th-and-5 from the UT 35-yard line.
Gus Malzahn decided to kick a 54-yard field goal and it was way off target, handing the ball back to the Vols on their own 36.
Auburn was able to force another quick three-and-out after a rough sack on Guarantano derailed the drive.
But the Tigers couldn’t catch a break after another great punt from Doyle pinned the Tigers back inside their own 10. What made matters even worse is that Ryan Davis, the returner, put the team in an even worse position after he was called for a delay of game penalty.
Auburn was now faced with a first down inside their own five and had to contend with a red-hot Tennessee defense.
Stidham came dangerously close to converting a 3rd-and-10 from his own end zone, but the secondary was able to close on the ball quick enough to force the incompletion.
The inability to gain any yardage gave Tennessee the ball back at the Auburn 49. If there were ever a time to put this game out of reach, this was it.
A 42-yard catch by Palmer on the first play of the drive immediately put the Vols inside the Tigers 10.
Auburn’s defense recovered nicely and were able to force a 20-yard attempt by Cimaglia. They were unable to get their second blocked attempt of the game and the Vols now lead 30-17.
The Tigers were feeling the pressure on the next drive and it showed in more ways than one. After a big gain by Schwartz, Stidham let one rip to Slayton only to watch his wide-open receiver drop a what would have been a certain touchdown.
Eight plays later, Auburn faced a 4th-and-4 from the Vols’ 25. Deandre Johnson was able to sack Stidham and give the ball back to the UT offense.
Guarantano was unable to find Palmer for a deep ball on the sideline, but found tight end Eli Wolf for a major first down on 3rd-and-10 with under four minutes to play.
The Vols couldn’t convert later in the drive and decided to punt. The Tigers drove down the field and Stidham found Williams in the end zone to make it a one-score game, 30-24.
Auburn attempted the onside kick, but Jennings was able to recover and seal the victory.
The Vols are now 3-3 on the season with a (1-2) record in SEC play. They will host Alabama next weekend.