| Knoxville News Sentinel
Tennessee football continued its furious downward spiral Saturday at Auburn.
The Vols (2-5) were lifeless in the second half and lost 30-17 to the No. 21 Tigers (5-2). UT has been outscored 108-14 after halftime in its past five games.
Here are grades for Tennessee, which has lost five straight for the first time since 1988:
If Tennessee knew it was going to get 222 total yards from Eric Gray, it would surely have felt excellent about its chances of beating Auburn.
Alas, the Vols got a season-best 173 rushing yards from Gray in an excellent showing and still lost. They had a season-best 464 total yards and were 9-for-15 on third-down conversions, easily the best mark of the season. But they only had 17 points and swung the game with a horrific turnover.
Gray keyed a nine-play, 63-yard push to the Auburn 12-yard line late in the third quarter before disaster hit again. Jarrett Guarantano dropped back and fired a pass into the end zone straight at Auburn safety Smoke Monday. Monday ran it back for a 100-yard touchdown on a potential 14-point swing, taking UT from possibly having a 17-13 lead to a 20-10 deficit.
Guarantano has accounted for three Tennessee touchdowns since halftime of UT’s loss to Georgia — spanning nine halves of football. He has accounted for four defensive touchdowns in the same window with three pick-sixes and a fumble for a touchdown.
The senior quarterback just did not get it done again, which was a major letdown for a Tennessee team that got a great game on the ground with 222 rushing yards.
Gray scored a fourth-quarter touchdown by which time Guarantano was replaced by Harrison Bailey. The freshman did fine, throwing for 86 yards on 7-for-10 passing.
Tennessee hasn’t made enough winning plays in the passing game and has made too many losing plays. Guarantano was 15-for-23 passing for 156 yards. He has thrown for more than 200 yards twice this season.
Tennessee’s defense was mostly good against the Tigers in the first half Saturday except for one play. But that one play was a 54-yard touchdown pass from Bo Nix to Anthony Schwartz on a coverage bust in the secondary.
Bryce Thompson picked off Nix in the end zone in the first quarter. It was Tennessee’s first interception by a cornerback this season and the first for the Vols since Theo Jackson’s pick against Missouri on Oct. 3. That was a key play as Tennessee was solid early.
The Tigers only had three second-half drives against the Vols and they scored on all three — two field goals and a touchdown.
The defense again showed poor tackling too often even Auburn running back Tank Bigsby missing much of the game with an injury.
Brent Cimaglia had not missed a field goal since Oct. 3 against Missouri. He missed two Saturday — one from 50 yards and one from 37 yards.
He did make a 47-yarder, but a Vols team that struggles to score can’t miss opportunities to put points on the scoreboard.
Velus Jones also made a poor decision to bring a kickoff out of the end zone after Guarantano’s pick-six.
Tennessee had a great offensive game plan in the first quarter. Coordinator Jim Chaney got the ball to his playmakers in space and utilized the freshman wide receivers well.
Then the Vols imploded again with inexplicable decisions and uninspired moments. UT called a timeout to get the ball back with 1:18 in the first half, then showed no indication of trying to score.
It got worse: Tennessee’s second-half woes returned, as an opponent made adjustments again and the Vols had nothing.
The sophomore running back might as well get the ball 50 times per game the rest of the season. He is Tennessee’s best chance to win games. He led UT in rushing and receiving on Saturday.
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at [email protected]ews.com and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.