Tennessee entered their bye week on a mission. And they accomplished what they set out to do on Saturday when they pulled off the 30-24 upset over No. 21 Auburn on the road.
The Vols used a career day by both quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and defensive end Kyle Phillips to soar to victory over the Tigers. Guarantano set career highs in passing yards (328), pass completions (21), pass attempts (32), and tied a career-high with two passing touchdowns. Phillips set a career-high with nine tackles and forced a fumble that got recovered for the decisive touchdown.
Tennessee’s offensive line managed to not get completely dominated by Auburn’s stout front seven, though the Tigers’ defense still got plenty of penetration and totaled 10 tackles for loss and three sacks. But the Vols withstood that onslaught, and Guarantano and the offense put up nearly 400 yards of total offense.
Now we go back and evaluate some of the reasons why Tennessee earned the outcome they did. Here are the key numbers from the Vols’ 30-24 upset win over No. 21 Auburn
Third Down Brilliance
In the first half, the battle on third down was decisively won by Auburn. The Tigers converted five of their seven third down attempts while the Vols had picked up four of their nine conversions on third down. But by the time the game ended, the Vols had reversed their fortunes on the “money down.”
Tennessee finished the game converting 10 of their 19 third down attempts and held Auburn to just 4-of-9 on third downs in the second half. The Vols were particularly effective when they threw the ball on third down against the Tigers. Jarrett Guarantano was nearly flawless on third down and made some huge throws on that down, completing 11 of his 14 third down passes for 188 yards. Guarantnao averaged over 17 yards per completion on third down passes, and he was a perfect 8-of-8 on third-and-8 or longer on Saturday.
The Vols still need to get better on third down and short yardage situations. Once again on Saturday, Tennessee got stuffed on a couple short yardage situations and converted just two of their four third downs that were within four yards.
Aside from that, though, the Vols stood tall more often than not when they faced third down, and Guarantano’s huge passing numbers on third down were a decisive factor.
Winning the Turnover Battle
One of the reasons Tennessee has struggled against SEC opponents this season is because they kept losing the turnover battle. Against Florida, the Vols gave the ball away six times. Against Georgia, they never could get a takeaway from the Bulldogs despite getting multiple opportunities, and Georgia scored off Tennessee’s one and only fumble in the game.
Against Auburn, however, the Vols finally had the edge in the takeaway game.
Tennessee forced three Tiger turnovers and scored 14 points off those takeaways. Kyle Phillips forced a fumble on a strip sack of Jarrett Stidham, and Alontae Taylor eventually recovered it and ran into the end zone for a score. Bryce Thompson picked off a Stidham pass after he was pressured, and the Vols’ offense scored on the next possession. The only time Tennessee didn’t score off an Auburn turnover was when Jonathan Kongbo picked off another Stidham pass after he was pressured once again.
While Tennessee’s defense was forcing turnovers, the Vols’ offense as keeping it clean.
The Vols didn’t turn the ball over a single time on offense, which means they didn’t give Auburn a short field a single time. That was big for UT’s defense, and it helped the Vols win the field position battle too. Tennessee’s average starting position was their own 41 while Auburn’s was their own 22.
Possessing the Ball
Auburn got dominated in time of possession against Mississippi State during their last game. And that trend continued against the Vols.
The Bulldogs had the ball for nearly 42 minutes of game time against Auburn during their 23-9 victory over the Tigers. On Saturday, Tennessee possessed the football for 34 minutes and one second, meaning the Tigers had possession for just 23 minutes and 59 seconds. Against Mississippi State, Auburn had seven of their 10 possessions last shorter than two minutes. Against Tennessee, eight of their 13 possessions lasted shorter than two minutes.
Tennessee, meanwhile, had five of their 13 possessions go for longer than three and a half minutes of game time, including a 12-play, 86-yard scoring drive that took 6:24 off the clock in the third quarter. That was the possession that gave the Vols the lead, and they never looked back after that.
Second Half Surge
In the first half, Auburn’s offense was clicking in a way it hadn’t this season. The Tigers put up 188 yards of offense and were averaging 7.4 yards per play. Their two interceptions in the first half kept them from putting more than 17 points on the board, but the offense was able to pick up big plays and drive on Tennessee’s defense. Auburn had totaled 106 rushing yards in the first half against the Vols after not eclipsing 100 yards in a whole game in their last three contests.
Then the second half happened, and Tennessee’s defense hit another level.
The Vols held Auburn to just 20 rushing yards in the second half and held the Tigers’ offense to just 3.9 yards per play in the last half of play. Auburn went from averaging 4.6 yards per carry in the first half to just 1.8 yards an attempt in the second half. Tennessee also picked up both of their sacks on the day in the second half.
More importantly, the Vols got it done on the scoreboard in the second half too. Tennessee outscored Auburn 17-7 in the second half and had put up 20 unanswered points at one point before Auburn’s final drive of the game.
The Big Plays
Tennessee came into Saturday’s contest against Auburn with just 13 pass plays of 20 or more yards on the year. Against the Tigers, the Vols exploded for seven passing plays that went for 20 or more yards.
Gaurantano connected on passes that went for 42 yards twice, 36 yards, 30 yards, 25 yards twice, and 20 yards. The Vols also had a pass go for 19 yards, giving them eight pass plays of at least 15 yards on the afternoon. Both of Tennessee’s offensive touchdowns went for 25 or more yards. Jauan Jennings pulled down an impressive 25-yard touchdown catch and Ty Chandler caught a pass over the middle and sprinted down the field for a 42-yard score.
The Vols have been looking for more chunk plays on offense. And on Saturday, they found them.