The play was so 2020 for Tennessee football, so was the half for that matter.
Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw a touchdown pass to the opposition, again. His third-quarter pass into Auburn’s end zone was intercepted by a defender who was aptly named Smoke. Defensive back Smoke Monday proceeded to burn the Vols to a crisp, sprinting the length of the field past the Tigers’ jubilant bench and on to UT’s end zone.
The seminal play of Tennessee’s 30-17 loss at Jordan-Hare Stadium was the fourth pick-six Guarantano has thrown since halftime of a 44-21 loss at Georgia on Oct.
10, which began his team’s five-game losing streak. In that same span, he’s accounted for three touchdowns for UT.
The latter fact brings us back to the other predictable occurrence during this unpredictable pandemic season. The Vols were trampled after halftime, again. They were outscored 20-7, running the second-half scoreboard to a staggering 108-14 against them during the losing streak.
At least the latest version was more confounding than sobering. The Vols rushed for 101 yards and averaged 8.4 yards per carry in the third quarter and still were outscored 10-0.
Sixty-three of the aforementioned rushing yards came during an impressive 10-play drive that reached Auburn’s 12-yard line. Eric Gary, who rushed for 173 yards and averaged 7.9 yards per carry for the game, had 49 of the yards, including a 21-yard scamper.
But play No. 10 was Guarantano’s interception. There were some mitigating circumstances. Intended receiver Josh Palmer ran his route inside another Auburn defender, thereby narrowing the throwing window. As he threw, Guarantano was drilled from behind by an Auburn lineman, who had breached Tennessee’s offensive line. Regardless, the pass shouldn’t have been thrown.
When asked afterward if Guarantano still gives Tennessee the best chance to win, Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt said, “Absolutely. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t play him.”
He digressed by saying this for his QB: “He didn’t miss two field goals. He didn’t blow a coverage. He made a mistake, absolutely. I made mistakes, O.K.”
Pruitt was referencing two missed field goals by placekicker Brent Cimaglia, who’s one of the most accurate kickers in program history. The blown coverage allowed a relatively easy 54-yard touchdown pass from Auburn quarterback Bo Nix to speedster Anthony Schwartz. Those misplays were big factors in the outcome as well.
None of them had the seismic effect of Guarantano’s interception, however. Pruitt might be right about UT’s chances with the redshirt senior behind center. But nobody’s wrong to suggest the Vols ought to give freshman QB Harrison Bailey a bigger assignment next Saturday at Vanderbilt than the cameo appearance he had against Auburn.
The interception aside, the Vols didn’t make much of an effort to run a two-minute drill with Guarantano on their final drive of the first half. They had 1 minute, 18 seconds with which to work and ran six plays. Only three were pass plays and only one was intended to go deep downfield before ending in a QB scramble.
The strategy said something about what Tennessee thinks of its chances with Guarantano as well.
In other matters:
-Tennessee’s five-game losing streak is its longest since 1988. Five consecutive double-figures losses are a program first.
-The 464 yards of total offense constituted a single-game season high. The 222 rushing yards added up to the season’s second-highest total.
* * *
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at email@example.com.