Whether Tennessee football still matters or not, coming next is Desperation Day.
Virus permitting, the Vols will venture over to Vanderbilt for their last realistic chance of the year to stop this inexplicable fall into oblivion. They’ve already set a record: Five consecutive losses without coming close.
The Commodores may not be in a very good-neighbor mood. They’ve lost eight in a row and are early 11-point underdogs. That must be humbling. I thought it was equal opportunity.
Tennessee did show some early signs of life at Auburn. It had a fairly good start, built a 10-0 lead, then found ways to lose. Catastrophic plays, one each on offense and defense, combined with two field-goal misfires, snuffed out the possibility of upsetting the Tigers.
We knew what Jeremy Pruitt was going to say before he said it.
The team played hard but made mistakes. That’s on me as a coach. Struggled to get off the field on third downs. Had a blown coverage. Interception was a 10-point swing, maybe 14. Details and execution, details and execution.
The coach didn’t say how he was going to solve the problems but he identified them correctly.
Tennessee ran up and down the field but scored on only three of 10 possessions. Tennessee had more rushing yardage, more passing yardage, more first downs and more time of possession. It had no fumbles, only four penalties and one error on a kickoff return.
It nevertheless self-destructed. It gave up a long touchdown pass when nobody was looking. Jarrett Guarantano certainly wasn’t a disaster but he threw one that had no chance and it turned into a 100-yard interception run.
Eric Gray, with a bad hairstyle but the heart of a lion, did everything he could to prevent this setback – 173 rushing, 49 receiving, one touchdown. It was nowhere near enough.
The offensive line performed better than most Saturdays. The defense missed a bunch of tackles but was combative. Auburn star running back Tank Bigsby and both starting offensive tackles were knocked out of the game. Bryce Thompson picked off a pass in the end zone. Kivon Bennett had two sacks.
Auburn hadn’t played since Halloween. It looked rusty in the beginning. Tennessee opened with the two-step, one forward, one back. It looked crisp. Brent Cimaglia missed a field goal.
The Vols’ second possession was their best, 80 yards, nine plays, Guarantano correct read on an option, touchdown from the 9, longest scoring run of his career.
Tennessee soon reverted to form. The traditional second-half collapse (outscored 108-14 in the five second halves since intermission at Georgia) actually started in the second quarter. Auburn’s Anthony Schwartz ran a streak route. Trevon Flowers covered him short and thought he was handing him off to a safety. Alas, the safety was socially distancing. He and two other Vols gently surrounded a Tiger tight end. Bo Nix and Schwartz combined for a 54-yard touchdown.
“Blown coverage,” said Pruitt.
Tennessee’s first possession of the third quarter was decisive. Ten plays gained 63 yards, to the Auburn 12. Guarantano wanted to hit a slant route but it was covered. He held the ball too long and finally threw into the end zone.
“Bad decision,” said Pruitt.
Josh Palmer was blanketed. Smoke Monday got the ball. One of John Ward’s famous lines resurfaced: He could have run all the way to the state capitol.
The Vols had a chance to reduce the 10-point deficit to seven. They drove 72 yards. Cimaglia managed to miss a medium short kick.
Stats after that were misleading. Auburn marched to a touchdown. Freshman quarterback Harrison Bailey directed a UT scoring drive when it didn’t matter much. The Tigers kicked a 50-yard field goal with 1:27 remaining. It covered the betting line.
“I was really pleased with our guys’ effort,” said Pruitt. “We’ve got to execute better. We’ve got to finish. … We did offensively what we want to do, except we didn’t come away with points.”
Trey Smith said he wasn’t going to sugarcoat the performance.
“There are things we need to do better. … The team that makes the fewest mistakes wins and we keep making more mistakes than the other team. … No matter how hard you fight, you still have to execute.”
The Vol heavyweight turned philosopher.
“Coach Pruitt is a great man. It’s really been something being around a guy like that, an honest guy just being real with you. He’s very honest. He has our best interests in his heart.
“You don’t find that a lot in this industry … a guy with that much character that actually cares about his players. … The culture needed to change. It wasn’t going to happen overnight. … Just give him time. It’s going to work.”
Last call, time is running short, all aboard for Vanderbilt.
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is email@example.com