Tennessee football does not have much to complain about after a 30-24 upset of the #21 Auburn Tigers. Saturday’s victory broke a lengthy list of unenviable streaks for Tennessee’s program, but more importantly, it was exactly the boost the team needed in Jeremy Pruitt’s first year. Bowl eligibility is still up in the air, but beating a ranked team on the road is a solid sign of progress.
Now we’ve had time to digest the game and take another look at the film. What are some developments that should excite Tennessee fans, and what are some that are still a concern? We give some notes and observations below.
Inefficient First Down Runs
Tennessee’s offense had a frustrating predictability when it came to first downs. The Volunteers insisted on inside runs that were by and large very unsuccessful. David Ubben at The Athletic tallied the yardage totals, and it turns out that Tennessee gained less than three yards on 14 of their 20 first down run attempts.
Most criticism has centered on Tyson Helton’s conservative play calling. That is a legitimate criticism, but I actually do not think it is the main problem with these first down situations. Tennessee’s offense did quite well on screen passes, swing passes, and shots down the field, thanks in large part to Auburn loading up the box to try and stop these runs.
The problem is one of efficiency. If you are going to broadcast that you will be running on first down, you need to ensure that the offensive line/running backs can consistently gain at least three yards per rush. That makes the later downs manageable and gives you more flexibility with second down and third down play calling. That simply hasn’t been the case for Tennessee in 2018. Their inability to turn these runs into positive yardage has stunted the offense and put them into more difficult situations.
Might as well get to it now. For whatever reason, Tennessee’s offense looked even more conservative than it did in previous games. Scoring 23 points on that side of the ball ultimately did help lead to victory, but it’s hard to get past the favorable turnover margin and wonder if Tennessee could have done even more with the opportunities given to them.
Most egregious was the series after Jonathan Kongbo picked off a desperation throw from Jarrett Stidham. The offense took the field at the Auburn 37-yard line, ran it twice in the middle for no gain, threw an incomplete pass, and punted.
Another contender would be early in the second quarter when Tennessee faced a third-and-11 at the Auburn 35. Instead of utilizing the receivers, Helton called a draw play that gained only four yards. Apparently the plan was to try and set up a field goal attempt of less than 50 yards. The kick was blocked, and Tennessee gave Auburn excellent field position to start their next drive. The defense was able to bail them out with an interception from Bryce Thompson, but it was a frustrating sequence to witness when the team just needed a touchdown to tie it up.
Credit needs to be given to Helton for taking risks later in the game, specifically on the Jauan Jennings touchdown and the 42-yard completion to Josh Palmer. Those are more in line with Tennessee’s strengths as an offense. Still, it’s a wonder why we didn’t see those types of calls in similar situations during the first half, even after it became clear that Auburn was starting to cheat in towards the box.
There was a lot to like about the defense on Saturday, so this note is not as pressing of a concern. It still warrants mention that the secondary had a very rough time on Saturday with wrapping up. Both starting cornerbacks Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson missed easy tackles and let ball carriers slip free on potential stops.
Theo Jackson had the lowlight of the day in in Trevon Flowers’ absence, when he had a good angle on Auburn receiver Anthony Schwartz, but inexplicably stutter stepped and let Schwartz sprint past for a touchdown. Of course, the only reason Schwartz had that room was because Thompson somehow failed to bring him to the ground despite having both arms around him.
Overall it was quite a forgettable day in the tackling department. Pruitt has specifically mentioned tackling as an area of improvement, so he’s not going to be happy when reviewing the film and seeing how many plays Tennessee missed.
The offensive line had arguably their best outing of the season against Auburn. The Tigers might not be especially good this year, but their defensive line contains multiple draft picks and highly rated players. Which makes it all the more impressive how Tennessee’s front five were able to protect Jarrett Guarantano on Saturday.
In fact, it was outright stunning. While the run game never got going, Tennessee’s offensive line provided Guarantano enough to time to make things happen down the field. Keep in mind that the interior had to be reshuffled because of injuries both before and during the game. It even required Nathan Niehaus to make his first career start and Jerome Carvin to come in as an offensive guard when Jahmir Johnson went down. Despite this, both performed admirably and complemented Drew Richmond and Trey Smith on the outside.
Perhaps this is the game where Tennessee’s line convinces Helton to start giving Guarantano even more chances to show what he’s capable of. If the line can replicate their performance (at least, in pass protection) then the Volunteers offense might turn a corner sooner rather than later.
We’ve already mentioned the receivers being a bright spot for the team—now it is Guarantano’s turn for recognition.
Just last week, I criticized Guarantano’s tendency to hold on to the ball for too long and wait until a route was almost finished before throwing it. Suffice to say, he didn’t have that problem against Auburn, and instead turned in the best performance of his career.
His final stat line of 21-for-32, 328 passing yards, and two touchdowns on 10.3 yards per attempt should speak for itself. But it’s not just the numbers which make Guarantano’s day so impressive. A quick review of his completions shows Guarantano putting his receivers in prime position to make the receptions, with surprising accuracy on ball placement. It wasn’t just a hyper-athletic Marquez Callaway who benefitted. Josh Palmer, Jauan Jennings, and Ty Chandler each had explosive plays that were sparked by a quality pass.
All throughout Saturday afternoon, Guarantano made quick decisions and avoided costly mistakes. If it sounds like I’m gushing over his performance, it’s because I am. He looked massively improved from the Georgia contest.
It’s still too early to say that Guarantano is taking the next step towards being a “great” quarterback. That requires a level of consistency that he hasn’t shown just yet. But his game against Auburn proved that the potential is still there.
Tennessee’s defense didn’t inspire confidence on the first couple of Auburn drives. It almost looked like the Volunteers had studied another defense in the bye week, because the Tigers were moving down field on plays where Tennessee defenders were nowhere to be found. The corners could not press Auburn’s receivers and the defensive line alone was not getting any push.
The Vols flipped the script in the second half. The corners started to play off their assignments a bit and let the routes develop, and Stidham could not consistently deliver quick strikes to take advantage of it. Tennessee also sent defensive backs on more blitz plays, one of which from Baylen Buchanan helped lead to an interception. These blitz calls seriously disrupted Auburn’s attempts at side-to-side misdirection. The linebackers were also tasked with more help on stopping inside runs, which took its toll in the second half.
The numbers bear it out too. In the first half, Auburn ran 39 plays for 288 yards (7.4 yards per play). 182 of those were passing yards while 106 were rushing yards.
In the second half, Auburn ran 41 plays for 160 yards (3.9 yards per play). 140 of those were passing yards while 20 of those were rushing yards.
That is an incredible improvement. It is even better when you realize that Auburn’s last drive went 88 yards and mostly padded the stats when Tennessee already had the game in hand.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Pruitt Effect. Even if he doesn’t have the personnel he wants to run his system, you can bet that Pruitt will be putting his defense in the best position possible. His adjustments were fascinating to watch and were vital for Tennessee to pull off one of the biggest upsets in program history.