Auburn looked like a team that had not played in 21 days. The visiting Tennessee Volunteers managed to jump out to a 10-0 lead in the first half on the road. The Vols were able to run the ball effectively, and quarterback Jarrett Guarantano found Tennessee receivers on short passes that were easy completions with room to run. Much of that did not change over the course of the contest, but the Auburn offense woke up, and the Tigers’ defense tightened in the redzone, which led to a comfortable win for the home team when it was all said and done.
The game was closely contested until Auburn defensive back Smoke Monday intercepted a pass in his own endzone which he returned 100 yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter. That score put the Tigers ahead 20-10, and Auburn never looked back from that point. Auburn eventually took control of the game and emerged as victors by a final score of 30-17.
Auburn earned a crucial win, and Tennessee dropped their fifth game in a row.
Here are three takeaways from the Tigers’ fifth win of the 2020 season.
Bend but don’t break approach worked for Auburn’s defense
The Tennessee offense had a very productive day against the Auburn defense. This was especially true running the ball, as the Vols racked up 222 yards on the ground and averaged well over 5 yards per carry. The Volunteers talented running back Eric Gray gained over 170 yards on the ground by himself, and Auburn rarely had an answer for him. The Tigers defense only gave up one big run, but were consistently gashed for positive yardage on the night.
Similarly, Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano had a very effective performance and had his team in position to steal a road victory until throwing the costly interception to Monday.
So, how did Tennessee accrue nearly 500 yards of total offense, only punt twice and end up with only 17 points? Because for all of the yardage allowed by Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s group, once the Vols reached Tiger territory, the defense was able to turn Tennessee away with no points on three occasions.
In addition to the huge interception by Smoke Monday, the Tigers defense also forced two field goal attempts that the Volunteers missed. Those three possessions that Tennessee moved the ball deep into Auburn territory, and came away with zero points, are what led to a comfortable Auburn victory.
Schwartz strikes again
Auburn quarterback Bo Nix and speedster wide receiver Anthony Schwartz have both been really important factors in the Tigers’ offense the last two seasons. Schwartz has compiled over 80 catches across those two campaigns with all of the throws coming from Nix. So, the two players have clearly been able to connect on a regular basis.
However, an image that Auburn fans may have a difficult time shaking is that of Schwartz running deep down the field (often behind all of the defenders) and the ball thrown by Nix landing somewhere that is uncatchable. Well, against LSU a few weeks ago, Nix found Schwartz on a deep pass that turned into a 91 yard touchdown reception. That was a great sign, but the game was already in hand at the time the play occurred.
On Saturday night, Nix delivered a beautiful deep ball to Schwartz again, this time for a 54-yard score that Auburn desperately needed early in the second quarter. Auburn went on to outscore Tennessee 23-7 for the rest of the game, and the long strike to Schwartz is what set the Tigers on the course for victory against the Volunteers.
If Auburn can continue to get Anthony Schwartz the ball down the field, it will give them a much better chance of putting up points against the remaining opponents on their schedule.
COVID-19 ended up being a non-factor
Entering the game, it was unclear which players, if any, would be held out of the contest between Auburn and Tennessee. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn told reporters earlier in the week that the Tigers had no new positive tests this week, but had also said the week before that there had been nine players and three staffers who tested positive.
When the teams kicked off in Jordan-Hare Stadium, every starter (and backup who plays a key role) was dressed out and either on the field or sideline. That was obviously a huge boost for Auburn and allowed the Tigers to field a team that is just better than the Vols right now.
Auburn did suffer a couple of injuries during the game that hopefully will prove to be minor, but dodging the COVID-19 bullet helped pave the way for the Tigers’ much needed 30-17 win over Tennessee.
Zack Shaw is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News and former walk-on for the Auburn Tigers. You can contact him by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @z_m_shaw