As Jeremy Pruitt said following Tennessee’s 30-24 upset win over No. 21 Auburn, the Vols beat a really good Tigers’ football team on Saturday.
Without the play of Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee doesn’t exorcise the many demons that have haunted the Vols for so many years.
“I thought we put the ball where our wide receivers could make the plays and nobody else,” Pruitt said following his first SEC win as Tennessee’s head coach. “Jarrett (Guarantano) did a good job taking care of the football.”
Guarantano’s performance was a long time coming. As Tennessee’s starting quarterback, the redshirt sophomore hadn’t won an SEC game, and his overall record was flat-out miserable. Guarantano arrived on Rocky Top in 2016 as a highly-touted quarterback, choosing Tennessee over Ohio State and other top programs. In 14 games, Guarantano flashed his potential on numerous occasions, but it hadn’t all come together.
On the plains of Auburn, it finally all came together.
Against an Auburn defense that came into the game giving up an SEC-best 153 passing yards per game, Guarantano threw for a career-high 328 yards and two touchdowns on 21-of-32 passing. His 21 completions also set a new career-high, as did his 32 passing attempts. His two touchdown passes tied a career-high.
As a result of his performance, Guarantano was named the quarterback of Pro Football Focus’ College National Team of the Week. The New Jersey native picked up a grade of 93.3 from PFF College, the highest of any offensive player on the National Team of the Week this weekend.
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“It was an emotional win for me,” Guarantano said following the Vols first road upset over a ranked SEC team since Phillip Fulmer led Tennessee to a 51-33 win at No. 10 Georgia in 2006. “It’s been a long time coming.”
In the second quarter, Guarantano found running back Ty Chandler for a 42-yard touchdown pass that tied the game at 10-10. Then, with 3:25 remaining in the third quarter, he connected with Jauan Jennings for a 25-yard touchdown that would give Tennessee the lead for good as they jumped ahead 20-17.
“It’s definitely a beautiful experience,” Guarantano stated. “The place was loud. Our team was ready to play, though. We had a long week of practice, and we came out ready to go.
“We all see every time we come back and see the film and see the mistakes, we know that we have problems and we need to assess them every week. When you have a group of guys like we do, and we come back and work every day, we know some of these things are going to happen.”
Guarantano was nearly flawless against the Tigers. The Vols’ starting QB didn’t turn the football over, hung tough under pressure, and stepped up on third down. He was 11-of-14 on third down, including a perfect 8-for-8 on third-and-8 or longer. Guarantano credits part of that success to having offensive coordinator Tyson Helton on the field for the first time this season. Helton spent the previous five games up in the box calling plays.
“I think it definitely made a big difference,” Guarantano said of Helton’s presence on the sideline. “I was able to get a gauge on what (Helton) was thinking, what he was feeling. I think it’ll continue further, that he’s going to do that. I think it’s going to be a good thing.”
As for the poise he showed, Guarantano credits the head ball coach.
“We’re used to being down, and we weren’t focused on the scoreboard at all,” Guarantano added. “That’s one of the things Coach Pruitt talks about pre-game, don’t worry about the scoreboard, be the most physical team out there, and let’s go play ball.”
Guarantano should receive all the praise in the world for his breakout performance against Auburn, but the receivers should, and are, receiving as much credit. Guarantano may just be a sophomore on the football field, but it’s his third season on Rocky Top, and he’s played with Marquez Callaway, Jennings, Brandon Johnson, and Josh Palmer for a while now. That chemistry led to Saturday’s breakout through the air.
“Chemistry,” Guarantano said when asked about what allows him to hit his receivers on downfield passes. “We’ve been together a long, long time now, and it’s starting to come together for us.”
Tennessee’s receivers manhandled Auburn’s talented secondary on the perimeter. The trio of Callaway, Jennings, and Palmer combined for six catches of at least 20 yards, and they faced single-coverage often. Against that coverage, Guarantano executed plenty of back-shoulder throws, just giving his receivers a chance to make a play on 50-50 balls.
“We had many explosive plays, and they did a great job of high-pointing those 50-50 balls,” Guarantano stated. “We talk about it all the time, those are the ones that are going to win SEC games. There’s great defenses, and we know we have to make those catches in order to compete, and they did an excellent job.
“The offensive line did a great job today against not only one of the best defensive lines in the SEC, but in the country. As an offense, we played very well. Obviously, we have things we need to fix, and we’ll go back and elaborate on those things. I’m very happy with what we did today.”
Palmer led the group in receiving yards with 84, while Jennings and Chandler led in receptions with five apiece. Guarantano found nine different receivers on the afternoon in Tennessee’s best passing performance since Joshua Dobbs threw for 340 yards against Vanderbilt in 2016.
“They played a hell of a game,” Trey Smith said afterwards. “They made a lot of big plays when we needed them. They did a heck of a job, man. You can’t ask for a better group than that.”
With the northeast corner of the stadium painted Tennessee orange and the Pride of the Southland blasting “Rocky Top,” Guarantano left the field teary-eyed as Vol fans serenaded him with praise.
“It meant the world,” Guarantano said. “Last year and this year have been rough.”