Reasons why Tennessee pulled off the upset at Auburn

AUBURN, AL – OCTOBER 13, 2018 – Running back Ty Chandler #8 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Auburn Tigers and the Tennessee Volunteers at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, AL. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

By Vince Ferrara / @VinceSports

Here are my top takeaways and observations from Tennessee’s 30-24 win at #21 Auburn, Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Athens.

At the bottom you will find the starting line-up and all of UT’s reserves from the game. Thanks to SEC Network/ESPN statistician Jeff Muir for some of the great numbers below to help tell the story and support some of my points.

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*Surprise: Even though Auburn wasn’t playing well coming into the game, I certainly took the “I gotta see it first before I believe it” approach with picking a Vols SEC win, especially on the road against a ranked team.

*Fight: Tennessee competed when they were down big at Georgia. Jeremy Pruitt was emotional in displaying his pride for that effort. They carried that fight into this game with energy from the start.

*Overcoming Bad Things: The Vols had a deep ball completion to RB Ty Chandler wiped off because of an illegal formation. UT also had a 48-yard FG blocked by Auburn. A missed tackle allowed Anthony Schwartz to run away from the defense for a 76-yd TD. The Vols shook those bad things off and kept playing. By the way, that was the first blocked FG of a Tennessee attempt since 2013 when Adam Butler of Vanderbilt recorded one.

*Changes: On defense, as expected, Baylen Buchanan started at the nickel “Star” DB position with the two true freshmen, Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson at CB. Shawn Shamburger started at FS in place of the banged-up Micah Abernathy. UT started in a 4-2-5 alignment for the first time this season. They had NG Shy Tuttle and DE Alexis Johnson as the DTs with Jonathan Kongbo back to his old DE position joining Kyle Phillips. Darrin Kirkland Jr. was the Will LB alongside Mike MLB Daniel Bituli. They were multiple into different looks throughout the game, but I wonder if over the open week the staff determined that this game them a better chance for success. On offense, Nathan Niehaus earned his first start of his college career, replacing Jerome Carvin at RG. When Jahmir Johnson left the game with an injury, Carvin went to his spot at left guard and I thought did a decent job. Carvin has been practicing more at center as the back-up. Don’t be surprised if Carvin works his way into the starting line-up at center when he’s ready. The Vols also returned to a 2 TE/HB look with Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings as the two receivers rather than the 3-wide look they’ve started with a lot.

*Coaching Helped Players: The staff had its best game at Tennessee, period. They took more shots down the field. Guarantano had 7 passes for 20+ yards against Auburn. He had only 7 on the season entering the game. UT threw 50/50 balls to their wide receivers, especially Callaway and Jennings. We’ve said this before, let your playmakers help your offense. Tyson Helton dialed-up more touches for his biggest TD home run threat, Ty Chandler. He was by far the leading rusher in attempts and yards, plus he was involved in the passing game as well. He scored a touchdown rushing and receiving. On his 42-yd TD catch and run, the Vols isolated the middle linebacker on Chandler one-on-one in the slot and UT took advantage of it. Chandler had a season-high 21 touches. He should be 20+ touches every game.

*More on Guarantano: Guarantano was an amazing 8-of-8 on 3rd Down & 8 or longer with 7 1st downs, 168 yards and 1 TD in the Auburn game. I’m not sure enough college football analysts regionally and nationally know those numbers and realized how strong he was on 3rd down. Overall, Guarantano was 11-14, 188 yards, 9 first downs on 3rd down vs. Auburn. Coming into the game he was 17-29, 182 yards, 12 first downs. On top of that, he’s protecting the football. He has only thrown 4 INTs in 264 career pass attempts. He’s thrown 10 TDs in his career. You can win with that.

*More on Wide Receivers: Jennings has seen his targets go up from 6 total in the first three games to 18 over the last three games. The first three games he had 6 catches for 59 yards. The last three games, he has 11 catches for 148 yards. Callaway had 12 catches on 16 targets for 149 yards in first three games. The last three games he has 6 catches on 14 targets for 137 yards. His average per catch has gone up in that span from 12.4 to 22.8.

*More on Chandler: Chandler has 412 yards from scrimmage in 2018 on 65 touches. He had 413 yards from scrimmage on 81 touches in 2017. Chandler has 19 catches for 223 yards, 11.7 average in his career. Throw him the ball.

*1st Down Play-Calling: Not counting penalties that brought back original play-calls, UT ran the ball 19 times on 1st down and passed it just 6 times. The only pass of the 2nd have was the perfectly timed and set-up Guarantano rollout right deep throw left to Josh Palmer for 42 yards. What was most impressive to me about that is UT recognizing that reserve DB Smoke Monday was in the game at FS for the ejected starter Jeremiah Dinson and they went after him. Kudos for the awareness on that.

*Unconventional 3rd Down Success: See Guarantano’s 3rd & 8+ numbers above. Because the run-game largely struggled (10 Auburn TFLs,) Tennessee was in a lot of 3rd and long situations. Even though the percentages of converting are against you, UT picked-up first down time after time. Meanwhile, the struggles in short yardage continue. You can’t sustain that, but the oddity worked for UT in this one.

*Missed Tackles Early: The Vols defense had an awful start to the game. They had missed tackles all over the place and Auburn drove down the field on their first two possessions to get 10 points. UT’s turnovers seemed to lift the confidence of the defense and they largely cleaned it up.

*Confidence Grew: You could see the players in the way they were carrying themselves that as the game went on, their belief increased. The missed the tackles displayed that, the wide receivers displayed and the body language of the coaching staff displayed that.

*Tyson Helton Moved To The Sideline: I thought it was a great decision to move Offensive Coordinator Tyson Helton from the press box to the sideline. Jeremy Pruitt spoke to this in the postgame as well. He was able to look Guarantano and the offensive players in the eyes and communicate more specifically. I also thought he brought energy to the team as well as a fiery coach.

*First Possession FG: I think it was huge for UT to get some points on its first possession after Auburn got a TD on its first drive. That’s only the 2nd time this season UT has scored on the first drive of the game. The other was a FG vs. UTEP. Failing to come up with points there and falling behind further would have made it tougher to overcome. Holding the Tigers to a FG on their 2nd drive was also rather large.

*Best Game For Defensive Line: You could argue that several players played their best game in a Tennessee uniform, Kyle Phillips, Alexis Johnson, Paul Bain, Jonathan Kongbo among them. You win on the defensive line in this league and the Vols defense was able to slow the Auburn run game down after the first two possessions and they clearly affected Jarrett Stidham. The 3 turnovers were all a result of the improved d-line play. Phillips was especially good. He led the team in tackles from his DE position, which you don’t often see. He had a ½ sack and ½ TFL along with the forced fumble that was recovered for a huge touchdown. He was in the backfield a lot.

*Offensive Line Better At Pass-Blocking Than Run-Blocking: UT still isn’t good on the offensive line, but they have improved slightly at pass protecting. Coaches and Guarantano are helping them with the quick pass game and the short-drop 50/50 balls, but they aren’t the disaster they were in the Florida game. The run game blocking is still a problem. Tennessee averaged 2.2 yards per rush the last two games (61-134) after rushing 54 times for 156 against Florida. UT is averaging 96.7 yards rushing per game in SEC play and 2.5 yards per rush. Alabama gives up 121.8 rushing yards per game in SEC play and 3.7 yards per rush.

*Auburn Helped: Let’s not pretend this was a perfect performance. Stidham was terrible. Despite pressure from Tennessee defenders, he could have easily thrown the ball away or made decisions an experienced guy like him should. Stidham overthrew open receivers (like Fromm did the game before,) he had a terrible sure TD dropped by Slayton. Tennessee was better, but Auburn was the same in that it wouldn’t get out of its own way.

*Injuries: UT lost starters…TE Dominick Wood-Anderson, LG Jahmir Johnson and DE/OLB Jonathan Kongbo during the game. Kongbo is lost for the season, unfortunately. DWA, Johnson and S Micah Abernathy who was not able to play are all day-to-day. Previously, Trevon Flowers and Riley Locklear were ruled out for a few weeks.

*Targeting: I’m apparently in the minority in that I’m not surprised they called Bituli for targeting. Yes, the ball carrier dipping late cause the helmet-to-helmet, but as Jeremy Pruitt pointed out, Bituli didn’t have his eyes up when tackling. If he does, there won’t be helmet-to-helmet contact. The rule is for safety and to change the tackling habits of players, so they are less at risk. Also, Alontae Taylor was fortunate he missed the Auburn player because he led with his helmet and was in danger of a penalty or head injury also.

*Fan/Fulmer Celebration: You’ve probably seen the videos of Phillip Fulmer, coaches, players hugging and celebrating the win. Many from Tennessee were recognizing all the fans that made the trip to support the team despite their struggles. That was neat to see.

*Changes Everything: You view this team in 2018, the direction of the program and the possibility of a coveted bowl berth completely different. The confidence is boosted, the validation of what the first-year coaching staff has harped on, the consideration that they could win more SEC games when it looked unlikely before snapping the losing streak, the discussion of a potential bowl berth is back in play and the boost to stay off negative recruiting on how far this program is to having success are all reasons why that win over Auburn changes everything.


*Rare Offense:

Vols Starters & Participation Chart
Tennessee Offense
QB 2 Jarrett Guarantano
RB 8 Ty Chandler
WR 1 Marquez Callaway
WR 15 Jauan Jennings
TE 80 Eli Wolf
TE 4 Dominick Wood-Anderson
LT 73 Trey Smith
LG 58 Jahmir Johnson
C 70 Ryan Johnson
RG 57 Nathan Niehaus
RT 51 Drew Richmond

Tennessee Defense
DE 5 Kyle Phillips
NT 2T Shy Tuttle
DT 98 Alexis Johnson Jr.
DE 99 Jonathan Kongbo
WILL 34 Darrin Kirkland Jr.
MIKE 35 Daniel Bituli
CB 20 Bryce Thompson
CB 6 Alontae Taylor
SS 18 Nigel Warrior
FS 15 Shawn Shamburger
NICK 28 Baylen Buchanan

Tennessee Reserves (30)
13-Johnson,D., 14-Sapp,Q., 19-Taylor,D., 26-Jackson,T., 3-Osborne,M., 42-Cimaglia,B., 7-Johnson,B.,
8-Allen,J., 9-Jordan,T., 10-Byrd,T., 11-Murphy,J., 23-Ignont,W., 24-Kelly Jr.,T., 27-Fils-Aime,C.,
31-London,M., 33-Banks,J., 37-Brooks,P., 47-Doyle,J., 52-Medford,E., 68-Tatum,M., 74-Calbert,K., 75-Carvin,J., 76-Hall,C., 81-Pope,A., 84-Palmer,J., 86-Craig,A., 88-Bumphus,L., 93-Gooden,E., 94-Butler,M., 97-Bain,P.

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