KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – What do you get when the Southeastern Conference’s best rushing attack meets up with the league’s worst run defense?
Auburn 55, Tennessee 23.
On a partly cloudy day at Neyland Stadium in a crowd announced as a 102,455 sellout – Tiger fans turned out en masse – No. 7-ranked Auburn overpowered struggling Tennessee, which has lost three in a row to ranked opponents by a combined 131-36 score.
“This is part of the development of our football team,” Vols coach Butch Jones said, visibly frustrated by the Vols third consecutive one-sided loss. “It’s unfortunate, but we’re going through it. We’ve just got to keep working to get better and build it.”
With about 7 minutes left, the jubilant Tiger followers almost outnumbered the brave Vol fans able to stomach sticking around.
The 55 points were the most points ever by Auburn against Tennessee, besting the 38 the Tigers scored in 2004, 1988 and 1976.
Mercifully, Tennessee’s grind of playing seven ranked teams this season and fifth in a row is over. Remaining on the schedule are Vanderbilt and Kentucky, and the Commodores defeated Florida, 31-17, in Gainesville for the first time since 1945 to break a 22-game losing streak in the series.
Florida whipped the Vols, 31-17, on Sept. 21 when the Gators were No. 19 in the country.
After a week off, the Commodores come a calling on Nov. 23.
“We will recalibrate and come back,” Jones said.
Tennessee (4-6, 1-5) has to win both of its final games to become bowl eligible and the Vandy game won’t be an easy win.
“(The schedule) has taken a good toll,” running back Rajion Neal said. “I think in this league it is going to be physical week in and week out. So I definitely think this bye week is coming at a good time.”
Auburn (9-1, 5-1) amassed a whopping 444 yards rushing – it was averaging 306.2 coming in – against the porous Vols’ defense and quarterback Nick Marshall gained 214 on 14 carries, a whopping 15.3-yard average, and scored twice and threw a touchdown pass.
“He’s a great athlete,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “He’s making the right decisions and when he gets the ball out in space, he can really do some things.”
The 444 rushing yards marked the first time an opponent rushed for that much yardage since Nebraska shredded the Vols for 409 in the 1998 Orange Bowl. It’s the most rushing yards by a Tennessee opponent since Alabama set the record with 457 in 1986.
“They couldn’t stop the run, so we just ran it down their throat,” Marshall said.
Tailback Tre Mason finished with 117 yards on 20 tries with touchdowns covering 4 and 1 yard.
The Tigers left Shields-Watkins Field with 479 total yards.
“We knew their game plan,” said Vols defensive end Jacques Smith, whose 15-yard interception return for a touchdown gave Tennessee a momentary bit of hope just before halftime. “For us to not execute our game plan hurts a lot. We will work on the details to make us a better defense.”
It wasn’t just Auburn’s punishing ground attack that caused Tennessee problems. The Tigers also scored on an 85-yard punt return and 90-yard kickoff return.
Tennessee had 354 total yards, 226 coming on the ground, with Neal having 124 yards on 20 carries.
Freshman quarterback Josh Dobbs, making his second start, rushed for 50 yards and completed 16-of-25 passes for 128 yards with an interception.
But Tennessee had to settle for three Michael Palardy field goals while the high-octane Tigers were darting and dashing into the end zone with regularity.
“That’s tough,” Dobbs said. “Touchdowns are crucial. They are a big momentum shift. Our goal every drive is to score a touchdown. Getting points is great, but we just need to continue to finish drives.”
The Vols got off to a nice start, getting a 39-yard field goal from, scoring on their opening possession for the first time since Austin Peay to start the season.
Auburn answered with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Marshall to C.J. Uzomah.
Tennessee added another Palardy field goal, this one from 42 yards out, tying the score at 6-6.
After a Mason fumble, the Vols went 57 yards in four plays with Neal scoring from the 17, high-stepping the final 8 yards like the Tennessee walking horse that performed before the game. Dobbs’ 32-yard run set up the touchdown that put the Vols up, 13-6, early in the second quarter.
Vol running backs coach Robert Gillespie did a leaping shoulder bump with Neal after the play, injured his knee and was on crutches. He finished the first half on the sideline and coached from the press box after halftime.
“I’m still not sure what happened,” Neal said. “I am still asking questions about that. He won’t tell me because he told me that I needed to focus on the game. So I am not sure, but I’m going to find out.”
That lead lasted exactly 27 seconds.
Auburn needed just two plays an 32 seconds to cover 75 yards – Marshall rambled 62 yards to the Vols’ 13 – to tie the game once again and Mason scored on the next play.
The Tigers forced a Tennessee punt – Dobbs was sacked for a 12-yard loss to stall the drive – and Chris Davis, a senior cornerback, returned Palardy’s kick 85 yards for a touchdown, giving Auburn a 20-13 advantage. It was the Tigers’ third-longest punt return for a score in history.
Davis set a record by a Tennessee opponent, returning two punts for 127 yards, eclipsing the old mark of 111 yards set by Kentucky’s Dicky Lyons in 1966 and tied by Georgia’s Jake Scott in 1968.
Marshall struck again with 5:08 left in the opening half, scoring untouched by racing through a dump-truck size hole and dashing untouched into the end zone, pushing the Tiers’ lead to 27-13. That drive covered 85 yards in six plays – all on the ground.
Why would the SEC’s top rushing team ever think about throwing the ball?
That question popped up a few minutes later when Marshall dropped back, flipped a pass toward the right flat only to have Tennessee senior defensive end Jacques Smith pick it off and rumble 18 yards for a touchdown. Once in the end zone, Smith was slapped with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, but the Vols were within 27-20, with 1:28 before halftime.
“Coach Jones got on me a little bit,” Smith said. “He told me to act like I have scored before.”
But he hadn’t scored before at Tennessee.
“In high school, yes,” Smith said. “I shouldn’t have (celebrated) and I apologize for it. I was just happy to find my way into the end zone.”
Auburn needed just 37 seconds of the time allotted to score after a long punt return gave the Tigers good field position at Tennessee’s 45.
On the second play, Marshall raced 38 yards for the touchdown that gave the Tigers a 34-20 halftime lead.
Tennessee, which lost its previous two games to Alabama and Missouri by a combined 76-13 score, has been outscored 129-69 in the second quarter this season.
At the break, Auburn had 280 yards of offense and Marshall accounted for 164 of them, propelling the Tigers to 280 total yards in the first two quarters. Marshall added 35 yards passing.
Tennessee did OK with 248 yards of offense, rushing for 153, and Dobbs had running with 153 yards and Dobbs, making his second college start, had 95 passing and 37 rushing.
Auburn averaged 12.7 yards on 23 snaps in the half.
If that wasn’t bad enough for the Vols, Auburn’s Corey Grant returned the second half kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown and a monster 41-20 lead.
“We had some great blocking and I saw where the defense over-pursued on one side, so I just cut it back and there was a touchdown,” Grant said.
It got no better for the Vols, who suffered only their third homecoming loss in the last 30 homecoming games. The only other teams to clip Tennessee in that stretch are Miami and Wyoming.
Mason scored his second rushing touchdown on a 4-yard run in the third quarter and got the game’s final score on a 1-yard run early in the fourth quarter.
Demoralizing for Tennessee was Auburn’s quick-strike scores – the Tigers had three drives of 37, 32 and 30 seconds.
“When you’re on the sidelines, you get so happy that the offense comes out and answers like that,” Auburn defensive back Ryan Smith said. “So as a defense, we are ready to get back out there and answer as well.”
Note: The Vol For Life Legend of the Game was Tony Robinson, who quarterbacked the Vols to a 35-20 upset victory over No. 1 Auburn and Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson on Sept. 28, 1985.
Auburn 6 28 14 7 – 55
Tennessee 6 14 3 0 – 23
UT – FG Michael Palardy 39, 10:57
AU – C.J. Uzomah 25 pass from Nick Marshall (kick blocked), 6:36
UT – FG Palardy 42, 3:26
UT – Rajion Neal 17 run (Palardy kick), 14:50
AU – Tre Mason 13 run (Cody Parkey kick), 14:18
AU – Chris Davis 85 punt return (Parkey kick), 9:51
AU – Marshall 7 run (Parkey kick), 5:08
UT – Jacques Smith 18 interception return (Palardy kick), 1:28
AU – Marshall 38 run (Parkey kick), 0:51
AU – Corey Grant 90 kickoff return (Parkey kick), 14:45
UT – FG Palardy 40, 4:06
AU – Mason 4 run (Parkey kick), 7:52
AU – Mason 1 run (Parkey kick), 13:07
ATT – 102,455
First Downs 25 18
Rushes-Yards 53-444 43-226
Passing Yards 35 128
Total Yards 60-479 68-354
Com.-Att.-Int. 3-7-1 16-25-1
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 1-0
Punts.-Avg. 2-47.0 5-46.6
Penalties-Yds. 1-5 4-30
RUSHING — Auburn: Nick Marshall 14-214, Tre Mason 20-117, Cameron Artis-Payne 12-53, Corey Grant 4-48, Ricardo Louis 1-7, Kiehl Frazier 2-5; Tennessee: Rajion Neal 20-124, Marlin Lane 12-53, Josh Dobbs 10-50, Alton Howard 1-minus 1.
PASSING — Auburn: Marshall 3-7-1-35; Tennessee: Dobbs 16-25-1-128.
RECEIVING — Auburn: Sammie Coates 2-10, C.J. Uzomah 1-25; Tennessee: Marquez North 5-58, Howard 4-13, Neal 2-23, Jason Croom 2-14, Johnathon Johnson 2-14, Lane 1-5.
TACKLES (UA-A) – Auburn: Cassanova McKinzy 6-4 10, Ryan Smith 6-2 8, Ryan White 3-3 6; Tennessee: A.J. Johnson 7-1 8, Brian Randolph 6-2 8, LaDarrell McNeil 4-3 7, Cameron Sutton 5-1 6.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)