Despite holding a two-possession lead in the second quarter and another stellar performance by sophomore running back Eric Gray, Tennessee was unable to deliver the upset at No. 23/21 Auburn, falling 30-17 to the Tigers on Saturday night.
Gray recorded a season-high 173 rushing yards on 22 attempts, marking the second consecutive outing that the Memphis, Tennessee, native surpassed the century mark and the fourth time this season. Gray added a touchdown on a 1-yard scamper late in the fourth quarter, but it would not be enough to turn the tide. The Vols outgained the Tigers 464-385 in total yards, but despite the offensive production the Vols missed scoring opportunities proved costly.
The Vols close out their 2020 road slate next Saturday at Vanderbilt with kickoff slated for 7:30 p.m. ET. The game can be viewed on the SEC Network alternate channel.
UT (2-5) struck first on its second offensive drive of the night with Guarantano capping a nine-play, 80-yard drive with a 9-yard rush – the longest rushing TD of his career. Gray exploded on a 33-yard rush on third-and-15 to set up the Vols first scoring drive and then caught a 16-yard pass to move Tennessee into Tigers territory. Freshman Jimmy Calloway caught a six-yard toss to keep the momentum going before classmate Jalin Hyatt hauled in a 15-yarder to move the chains for the third time during the series. Gray, who finished the opening frame with 88 total offensive yards, gained another six on the ground, before Guarantano found pay dirt.
Following UT’s scoring drive, junior defensive back Bryce Thompson picked off a pass in the end zone to stall an Auburn drive. It marked the second time that Thompson intercepted a pass against the Tigers in his career. Brent Cimaglia extended the Vols lead to 10-0 with 13:42 remaining in the half with a 47-yard field goal. Unfortunately, the senior struggled most of the night going 1-for-3, missing a 50-yard and 37-yard attempt.
The Tigers responded quickly in the second quarter, finding the end zone on a four-play drive as quarterback Bo Nix connected with receiver Anthony Schwartz, who slipped by UT’s secondary for a wide-open 54-yard touchdown catch. Auburn’s defense then forced a three-and-out and knotted things at 10-10 with a successful 25-yard field goal attempt from junior kicker Anders Carlson with 5:36 left in the half.
Tennessee was plagued by a third quarter shutout for the second consecutive outing as Auburn tacked on 10 unanswered points to lead by 10 heading into the final quarter. The Vols limited the Tigers to a field goal on their opening offensive possession in the second half that lasted 7:35 and gave Auburn its first lead of the night, 13-10.
The Tigers remained ahead for the remainder of the contest. Auburn extended its lead to 20-10 on a 100-yard pick six from Smoke Monday after the Vols had journeyed into the red zone. UT reached the Tigers 12-yard line and looked poised for another score before Monday picked off Guarantano’s pass intended for Josh Palmer.
The Tigers (5-2) added another TD on a nine-yard rush by sophomore D.J. Williams with 7:14 left in the game to put things out of reach for the Vols. Carlson connected on a 50-yard field goal with just under 1:30 to go to provide the final scoring margin.
Defensively, the Vols efforts were highlighted by linebacker Kivon Bennett, who set a new career high with three tackles for loss and also recorded 2.0 sacks to tie a season high, which he set in UT’s previous outing at Arkansas. Thompson, Deandre Johnson and Matthew Butler led the Vols with six tackles each, with Johnson adding 1.5 tackles for loss.
Freshman quarterback Harrison Bailey led Tennessee’s final two drives of the game and led his first-career scoring drive, orchestrating a nine-play, 75-yard drive that was punctuated by Gray’s lone touchdown of the night. Bailey finished the game 7-of-10 passing for 86 yards, both career bests.