AUBURN, Ala.- Another poor second half and a back breaking turnover ended Tennessee’s upset bid on the Plains Saturday as Auburn handed the Vols their fifth straight loss, 30-17.
Tennessee’s offense showed more life in the first quarter than it had in the previous month as the Vols totaled 169 yards and built a 7-0 lead while driving to eventually take a 10-0 lead.
After Tennessee’s loss to Arkansas, Pruitt talked about being more aggressive in the passing game, and that’s what they did with Guarantano completing nine-of-12 passes for 116 yards in the first frame.
“I felt like we improved a lot offensively tonight when you look at production,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “We were better on third down, ran the ball pretty well, created some explosive plays. So that was good to see.”
The Vols’ offense did much of it with quick passes allowing their skill players to make plays after the catch. Running back Eric Gray was the best example, catching two passes for 49 yards.
Gray had a huge game for Tennessee, recording 173 rushing yards, 49 receiving yards and a touchdown on just 25 touches.
“You just have to take the positives and keep going with that into next week,” Gray said. “We played more of a complete game tonight but we just have to finish in the last bit.”
Auburn’s offense moved the ball with consistent ease in the first half, but Tennessee’s defense made some big plays to limit the damage.
First, came Bryce Thompson’s interception of Bo Nix in the end zone, keeping Tennessee’s lead at seven points.
The one exception to what was a bend not break night for the Vols’ defense came after UT extended its lead to 10. Auburn’s Anthony Schwartz got behind the Tennessee defense on a busted coverage for a 54-yard touchdown.
The Tigers would once again get deep in Tennessee’s red zone in the first half, but their drive stalled out and Auburn settled for a game tying field goal.
Tennessee’s bend not break defense showed itself on the opening drive of the second half as Auburn would take its first lead of the game. The Tigers plodded down the field and into the red zone until a Kivon Bennett sack forced Auburn into another field goal. Anders Carlson booted it through, giving Auburn a 13-10 lead.
Saturday’s performance marked back-to-back two sack performances for Bennett after the junior outside linebacker had just 0.5 sacks the first five games.
Tennessee went back to the run game on its ensuing drive with abundance success, moving the ball inside Auburn 20-yard line without the Vols completing a pass.
Poised to tie, or reclaim the lead, Guarantano’s turnover problems reared their ugly head again. The redshirt senior stared down his receiver and Auburn's Smoke Monday intercepted him in the end zone, returning it 100 yards for the touchdown. The throw marked Guarantano’s third pick six this season.
“Adversity is a part of the game,” Gray said. “That’s one of our maxims, when things don’t go your way you have to put on more steam. That’s ultimately what we have to do. We have to keep playing even when those things happen. That adversity comes.”
Tennessee stuck to the ground game on the ensuing drive, using four runs of nine or more yards to get in the Tigers’ red zone, but the drive stalled and Vols’ kicker Brent Cimaglia missed his second field goal on the night, this one from just 37 yards.
The back-to-back drives combined for 135 yards, but Auburn came out of them leading by seven more points than they started.
The missed field goal effectively ended Tennessee’s comeback bid as Auburn got the ball back with a two-possession lead in the fourth quarter.
Auburn would put any doubts about that away on its ensuing drive, going 80 yards on 12 plays, capped off by a nine-yard touchdown run from D.J. Williams.
Freshman quarterback Harrison Bailey would get the Vols’ two final drives completing seven-of-10 passes for 84 yards in mom up duty. The Marietta, Georgia native would lead a touchdown drive, but it was too little too late for the Vols.
Auburn outscored Tennessee 20-7 in the second half, continuing a terrible stretch of second halves for UT. In the Vols five game losing streak they’ve been outscored 108-14. A truly astounding number that’s nearly unbelievable and crippling to Pruitt’s long-term success at Tennessee.
“Quite frankly I don’t know what to tell you,” Trey Smith said of the second half struggles. “Man, it’s just we’ve been struggling. We have to get better at the end of the day. There’s nothing I can just tell you to encompass everything that’s going wrong. It’s just about execution and getting better as a team. Responding better in the second half.”
Tennessee will look to end its losing skid next week when they travel to Nashville to face winless Vanderbilt. Kick off from Vanderbilt Stadium is set for 7:30 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on the SEC Alternate Network.