Coming into Saturday’s match-up with Auburn, Vol fans were frustrated with Tennessee’s offense. The Vols had shown an ability to create some big plays through the air in the first five games of the season, but UT’s play-calling seemed to want to focus a lot more on running the ball rather than letting redshirt sophomore quarterback Jarrett Guarantano air it out.
But on Saturday, that completely changed.
The Vols still ran the ball more than they threw it, but there was much more balance from a pure play-calling perspective in that regard. Tennessee ran the ball 36 times and attempted 32 passes, and when they threw the ball, they often found a ton of success.
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Guarantano had a career-day against the No. 21 Tigers, and he and Tennessee’s receivers were a huge reason the Vols were able to pull off the 30-24 upset. Guarantano tossed up several 50-50 balls to Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, and Josh Palmer against Auburn, and Tennessee’s receivers almost always came down with the receptions.
On the day, Guarantano threw for 328 yards and two touchdowns while completing 21 of his 32 pass attempts. Those yards, completions, and pass attempts were all career-highs for him as a Vol.
Against Auburn, the Vols completed seven passes of 20 or more yards and were an astounding 11-of-14 for 188 yards when they threw on third down. Coming into Saturday’s game, the Vols had completed just 13 passes of 20 or more yards in the previous five games combined, and they were just 19-of-34 for 218 yards on third down passes in the five games prior.
Saturday showed what Tennessee’s offense is capable of even though the offensive line was still man-handled and got beat several times by an elite front seven. Now the question is this: Will Saturday’s performance carry over to the rest of the season?
Offensive coordinator Tyson Helton had been in the coach’s box for Tennessee’s first five games of the season. For the Auburn game, however, he came down onto the sidelines to call plays. That and the Vols’ extra preparations on the bye week resulted in Tennessee’s best overall offensive performance of the year to date.
Fans had become irked with Helton’s play-calling, chastising him for not getting the ball to Tennessee’s play-makers more frequently and focusing too heavily on the run. That was the most apparent on first down plays this season. No team in the SEC had attempted fewer first down passes on the year than UT heading into Saturday’s game. The Vols had thrown just 39 pass attempts compared to 105 runs on first down plays in their first five games.
That trend actually continued on Saturday despite the Vols’ efficiency throwing the ball. Tennessee ran 26 plays on first down against Auburn, and they called a run play on 20 of those instances. The Vols only threw the ball six times on first down against Auburn, and they completed four of them for a total of 60 yards. UT’s 20 rushes on first down totaled just 51 yards.
But aside from that continued irritant, the Vols’ offense showed more variation against Auburn than they had in the previous five weeks.
Tennessee didn’t just throw short passes or toss long bombs; they actually hit some intermediate throws as well. Not only that, but they attempted to stretch the field with swing passes and tried some runs to the outside too. All that resulted in the Vols finishing four yards shy of totaling 400 total yards of offense against a defense that was only giving up an average of 323.5 yards per game prior to Saturday’s contest.
The Vols’ 2018 offense won’t be mistaken for the 2012 offense any time soon (mostly because of the offensive line), but Saturday proved that Tennessee can be dangerous through the air as long as Tyson Helton is willing to call those plays. With the rest of UT’s schedule littered with winnable games after this upcoming match-up with Alabama, Tennessee needs to continue to call games on offense like they did against Auburn.
If Tennessee wants to sneak into a bowl game in Jeremy Pruitt’s first year, they need to learn a lesson from Saturday and continue to show more variation on offense. Guarantano proved he can be an effective passer if trusted, and UT’s receivers also showed they’re an extremely talented bunch. It’s time to start using them more.