Jeremy Pruitt notched the signature win of his debut season as the University of Tennessee Head Coach on Saturday. After upsetting a top-25 ranked Auburn team on the road, Tennessee finally broke their 11-game conference losing streak. The win on the Plains also marked Tennessee’s first victory against Auburn since 1999 and their first victory on the road against Auburn since 1998. Auburn may be on shaky foundations at the moment, but don’t let that take away from what this young Volunteers team was able to accomplish.
Jarrett Guarantano played the best game of his young career. Going 21-32 for 328 yards with 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions, Guarantano proved that he was capable of making accurate throws on time and down field. There were many throws you can look to from Saturday’s film that would show hard evidence of Guarantano’s development as a passing quarterback, but look no further than Tennessee’s third down conversion percentage. On the day, Tennessee was 10-19 on third down. Those numbers may not be overly impressive, but what makes them look even better is that on eight of those third downs, Tennessee needed at least eight yards or more. They were 8/8 on such plays.
With Guarantano finding nine different wide receivers on the day, the Tennessee passing attack looked more balanced than it has since the late 90’s. Unable to find much success on the ground, the Volunteer wide receivers stepped up in a big way. Josh Palmer continues to show development at receiver. Leading Tennessee in reception yards on Saturday with 84, Palmer has emerged as a favorite target for Guarantano.
Marquez Callaway came up with two huge third down catches to convert for first downs, and help lead the Volunteers to score. Having a hard time getting involved by running the ball, running back Ty Chandler found a way to help Tennessee’s offense through the air, including a 42 yard touchdown reception and a massive catch as he tip-toed down the left sideline that was negated by a penalty a few plays prior. The Volunteers finally found a way to get their star wide receiver, Jauan Jennings, involved heavily in the offense. Jennings has long provided an emotional spark for the Volunteers. Whether it was helping break the streak against Florida, or catching the game-winning hail-Mary against Georgia, Jennings brings an extra factor to the field. Jennings played a solid game on Saturday, catching five passes for 71 yards and a touchdown. Tennessee’s receiving core finally showed that they were worthy of the praise surrounding their size and ability.
Although Tennessee was unable to get much going on the ground, they still found enough success on offense to maintain the time of possession, 34:01-25:59. Tennessee’s special teams also played exceptionally well. Barring a blocked 45+ yard field goal attempt, the Tennessee kicking game was more successful than not on the day. Brent Cimaglia was 3 of 4 kicking on the day, with a long of 45 yards. Joy Doyle also played a big role in helping Tennessee flip the field, including a 40+ yard punt that rolled to the Auburn 2 yard line.
Tennessee’s defense played fantastic in the pass rush. Senior defensive end Kyle Phillips had nine total tackles on the day, including an assisted strip-sack on Jarrett Stidham that led to a Tennessee Touchdown. Defensive backs Alontae Taylor, Baylen Buchanan and Bryce Thompson all played well in coverage, allowing the defense time to disrupt Stidham in the pocket. Alontae Taylor recovered a fumble for a touchdown, and Thompson had a big interception and a huge deflection that would have been a touchdown. Jonathan Kongbo has shown great strides under Jeremy Pruitt. Switching from a defensive lineman position to linebacker, Kongbo has developed into a well-rounded linebacker. Late in the game, Kongbo went down with an apparent torn ACL, and will miss the rest of the season. The Volunteers will look to fill the void with Will Ignont or Quart’e Sapp. Late in the game, Daniel Bituli was assessed a penalty for targeting, and will miss the first half of the upcoming Alabama game. With Kongbo out due to injury, and Bituli sidelined for a half, might the Volunteers use J.J. Peterson? Only time will tell.
With the win on the road against a top-25 in-conference opponent, things seem to be looking up for the Volunteers. Tennessee won’t have time to revel in the win, as they play host to the visiting Crimson Tide of Alabama. The Tide come in to Knoxville, yet again, ranked as the #1 team in the nation. Tennessee will have to build off of this victory and play the game of their lives to take down the Goliath of college football. Jeremy Pruitt has the opportunity to be the first Nick Saban assistant to upset the legendary coach.