By Jimmy Hyams
The drought is over.
For the first time in 23 months and 12 tries, Tennessee has won an SEC game.
And for the first time since 2010, it came against a West Division opponent.
Behind the arm of Jarrett Guarantano, big-time plays by big receivers and a run defense that stiffened up after the first series, Tennessee took down No. 21 Auburn 30-24 Saturday in a victory that has rejuvenated hope that the Vols could be a bowl team.
Playing by far his best game in a Tennessee uniform, Guarantano completed 21 of 32 passes for 328 yards and two touchdowns. Better yet, on nine plays of third-and-at-least 8, he was 8 for 8 for 166 yards with seven first downs and a touchdown. He was sacked on the other one.
If Guarantano continues to play like this, and the defense continues to improve, the Vols (3-3) have a chance against every team on the schedule not named Alabama.
“This was by far and away the best offensive performance we’ve had in six games because that was a good defense,’’ said Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt, who named every one of his assistant coaches in praising the victory.
“Jarrett played with good poise and with confidence. The other 10 guys can affect how the quarterback plays and the quarterback can affect how they play.’’
Pruitt said Guarantano held the ball too long one time and Auburn “about killed him.’’
For the first time this season, offensive coordinator Tyson Helton roamed the sideline rather than call plays from the press box. It worked.
“The most important position on offense is probably the quarterback,’’ Pruitt said. “We talked about (moving Helton to the sidelines) as a staff. If you coach Jarrett every play, it’s easier to coach him from the sidelines.’’
Tennessee did a terrific job of stopping Auburn’s run game after the Tigers plowed through the Vols for 58 rushing yards on the opening possession of the game to take a 7-0 lead. On Auburn’s next 10 drives, the Tigers rushed for 68 yards, totaling only 126 on 34 carries for the game.
Pruitt said the improvement wasn’t about adjustments, just handling your assignments.
“We executed better in the second half until the last drive,’’ Pruitt said.
“If we fight hard, create turnovers, execute in all three phases of the game, we have a chance.’’
Tennessee also did something it should have done earlier this season – it called plays to help its beleaguered offensive line.
When you’re predictable with your playing calling – like the Vols were against Florida – it makes a weak line look even worse.
The counter to that is to get outside, run sweeps, run speed sweeps, throw flare passes, hit wideouts on slants and bubble screens, and throw fade routes.
That’s what Tennessee did with amazing success against a solid Auburn defense and, guess what, it made the offensive line look good.
The Vols had 10 plays of at least 18 yards and converted seven times on third-and-at-least 8 yards. UT made good on 10 of 19 third downs which allowed the Vols to have a commanding 34-to-26 minute time of possession advantage.
The opportunistic defense forced three turnovers – two interceptions and a fumble – and turned those into 14 points.
No play was bigger than the fourth quarter sack of Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham, one of the SEC’s most overrated players. Stidham was first hit by tackle Alexis Johnson, then stripped by end Kyle Phillips. The ball bounded around until freshman cornerback Alontae Taylor picked it up at the 1-yard line and hopped into the end zone.
Suddenly, the Vols were ahead 30-20 with nine minutes left in the game.
A key sack by Deondre Johnson stopped one Auburn drive and while the Tigers scored on their next possession, only 37 seconds remained.
Jauan Jennings, who had five catches for 71 yards in his best performance of the season, clinched the outcome by recovering Auburn’s onside kick.
“We needed to win because we need to gain some confidence,’’ Pruitt said. “We’ve got some good players. We just needed to have success.’’
That success could propel the Vols to solid second half of this season.