Vols shock Auburn for 1st SEC win since 2016

Vols up­set no. 21 auburn for first seC vic­tory in two years

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID COBB STAFF WRITER

AUBURN, Ala. — The first caller to Jeremy Pruitt’s weekly ra­dio show this past Wed­nes­day turned out to be a prankster im­per­son­at­ing the main char­ac­ter of the pop­u­lar Net­flix se­ries “Ozark.”

Whether the first-year Ten­nessee foot­ball coach re­al­ized that, the ques­tion from “Marty” in Lake of the Ozarks, Mis­souri, stuck with Pruitt as he tried to ar­tic­u­late what his Vol­un­teers’ 30-24 win at No. 21 Auburn on Satur­day meant.

“He asked me how we com­pete against the top-tier pro­grams in the coun­try,” Pruitt said. “I told him my an­swer is that we are a top-tier pro­gram in the coun­try.”

The Vols cer­tainly looked like one in an up­set that si­lenced many in the crowd of 84,589 at Jor­dan-Hare Sta­dium. No prank­ing in­volved. Red­shirt sopho­more quar­ter­back Jar­rett Guar­an­tano threw for a ca­reer-high 328 yards to lead the Vols to their first South­east­ern Con­fer­ence vic­tory since 2016 and their first win over an SEC West foe since 2010. The win changes the tra­jec­tory of a sea­son that seemed des­tined for a sub-.500 fin­ish af­ter Ten­nessee (3-3, 1-2) lost its first three games against power con­fer­ence op­po­nents this sea­son by 26 points each.

“It means a whole lot,” Guar­an­tano said, the emo­tion still raw on his face just min­utes af­ter ex­it­ing a ju­bi­lant Ten­nessee locker room.

The Tigers, com­ing off a 23-9 loss to Mis­sis­sippi State, fell to 4-3, 1-3.

An es­ti­mated 5,000 Vols fans in­hab­ited a cor­ner of the sta­dium in their pro­gram’s first trip to the Plains since 2004. The at­mos­phere around Ten­nessee foot­ball had been mostly bleak since the Vols lost that day.

Satur­day’s re­sult gave the Ten­nessee faith­ful a rea­son to hope Pruitt can lead a pro­gram re­vi­tal­iza­tion. The former Alabama de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor im­proved to 5-1 as an as­sis­tant or head coach against Auburn coach Gus Malzahn by co­or­di­nat­ing a de­fen­sive per­for­mance that forced three key turnovers.

The most im­por­tant take­away came late in the third quar­ter af­ter Ten­nessee surged ahead 20-17 on a 12-play scor­ing drive.

Auburn’s once-lauded of­fense gained 5 yards on first down. Alexis John­son Jr. and Kyle Phillips had other plans for sec­ond down. The two Ten­nessee de­fen­sive line­men forced quar­ter­back Jar­rett Stid­ham to re­treat be­fore John­son sacked him for a loss of 15 yards and forced a fum­ble.

A mad dash for the foot­ball en­sued.

It ended with fresh­man cor­ner­back Alon­tae Tay­lor hold­ing the ball in the end zone and the Vols lead­ing 27-17 af­ter Brent Cimaglia’s ex­tra-point kick with 2:34 left in the quar­ter.

Breaks that went against Ten­nessee in an em­bar­rass­ing 47-21 loss to Florida ear­lier in the sea­son seemed to go the Vols’ way, in­clud­ing a last-gasp on­side kick from Auburn that Ten­nessee re­ceiver Jauan Jen­nings calmly cor­ralled with 37 sec­onds left.

One Guar­an­tano kneel­down in the vic­tory for­ma­tion ended the game.

A visit from No. 1 Alabama this week could be a re­minder of the chasm be­tween Ten­nessee and na­tional promi­nence. Break­ing an 11-game SEC los­ing streak in em­phatic fash­ion on the road should make that re­al­ity check more tol­er­a­ble.

“Great morale boost,” ju­nior re­ceiver Mar­quez Call­away said. “We needed to win. I think the fans loved it; we loved it es­pe­cially.”

Call­away’s two catches for 55 yards helped Ten­nessee con­vert third-and-long plays. The Vols were 10-of19 on third-down con­ver­sions in the game. Guar­an­tano com­pleted passes on nine of the 10 con­ver­sions.

“Well, I think lots of times when it comes to the quar­ter­back po­si­tion, it take the other 10 guys to be ef­fec­tive, and the way they play af­fects on how he plays,” Pruitt said. “I thought he done a re­ally good job to­day of him hav­ing an ef­fect on his team­mates.”

The Pride of the South­land Band played “Rocky Top” as Ten­nessee play­ers cel­e­brated first at mid­field af­ter postgame hand­shakes and then made their way to­ward the locker room. Fans ser­e­naded the team with cheers as the play­ers and coaches ducked into the bow­els of the sta­dium with Ten­nessee’s first vic­tory at Auburn since 1998 se­cured.

“Well, let me tell you, this is not an easy place to win,” Pruitt said. “Nowhere is in the SEC. So to go on the road and win against a re­ally good foot­ball team in the SEC I think speaks to how far we’ve came as a pro­gram in the last 10 months.”

Ten­nessee, Pruitt said, is a top-tier pro­gram.

“We’ve just got to cre­ate a top-tier team,” he said. “You know what I’m say­ing? Our guys are work­ing hard to do that. The pro­gram is here. It’s our job to cre­ate the right team. We’re go­ing to do it with the men in this locker room and the guys we’re go­ing to re­cruit.”

Satur­day’s game of­fered a rea­son to be­lieve him.

Con­tact David Cobb at dcobb@times­freep­ress.com. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @David W Cobb and on Face­book at face­book.com/ vols up­date.

PHOTO BY PA­TRICK MUR­PHY-RACEY

Ten­nessee wide re­ceiver Jauan Jen­nings (15) catches a 25-yard touch­down pass from Jar­rett Guar­an­tano while cov­ered by Auburn de­fen­sive back Jor­dyn Peters dur­ing the sec­ond half of Satur­day’s game in Auburn, Ala. The Vols beat the 21st-ranked Tigers 30-24 for their first SEC win since Novem­ber 2016.

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