AUBURN — For much of the night Saturday, Auburn looked like a team that hadn’t played a football game in 21 days.
Tennessee, which has struggled mightily on offense through a four-game losing streak, moved the ball downfield almost at will. The Tigers' offense had two drives of at least 13 plays that ended in red-zone field goal attempts.
But the home team made the plays it needed to when it had to have them, none bigger than safety Smoke Monday’s 100-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter when the Volunteers were driving in an attempt to tie the game.
That was part of a run of 27 unanswered points for Auburn, which won Gus Malzahn’s 100th game as the program’s head coach 30-17 over Tennessee.
The Tigers head into next week’s Iron Bowl with a two-game winning streak and a 5-2 record.
Here are three things we learned Saturday:
1. Auburn’s defense has some holes to patch up before facing Alabama
Holding an opponent to just 17 points can definitely be considered a success, especially when you consider that 10 of them came on the first three drives of the game.
But the defense the Tigers played Saturday might not cut it next week against one of the most explosive offenses in the country in Tuscaloosa.
The Volunteers racked up 464 total yards and averaged 6.3 yards per play. The rushing attack was especially effective, with 41 carries going for 222 yards (5.4 average) and a touchdown. Eric Gray's 173 yards were the most by an individual against Auburn's defense this season.
Tennessee’s hot start can be traced to its success converting third downs. The visitors faced six on their first three drives and converted four of them – three Jarrett Guarantano pass completions and one run from Gray.
Those four plays averaged 25.3 yards. They led to two Volunteers field goal attempts (one of which was missed), a touchdown and a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter.
It wasn’t a new problem for the Tigers, who allowed four of their first six opponents to convert at least 53% of third downs. Three (Kentucky, Georgia and Ole Miss) converted more than 62%. Tennessee finished 9 of 15, or 60%.
Bend but don’t break worked against the Vols, but that’s a much harder strategy to make work against the Crimson Tide.
2. The injury bug may have struck at the worst time
There was good news Saturday when Auburn took the field with none of its starters or backups missing due to COVID-19 quarantines after having 10 players test positive during the open date. But the Tigers did not escape the victory as lucky.
Tank Bigsby, Auburn’s emergent star at running back this season, carried only three times. He appeared to injure his hip on his second carry, was cleared to return to the game in the second quarter, but was clearly still in some discomfort – he ran once more for 10 yards, then immediately went back to the sideline. He was ruled out for the second half.
Both of Auburn’s starting offensive tackles, Alec Jackson and Brodarious Hamm, also left due to injury during the second half. Austin Troxell entered at left tackle and Brenden Coffey at right.
Jackson did later return, though, with a hand heavily taped up.
Wide receiver Seth Williams was also slow to get up after very nearly making an acrobatic catch down the sideline midway through the fourth quarter.
3. Depth matters
Bigsby’s early injury could have spelled disaster for Auburn’s offense as well as he’s played during his freshman campaign.
But Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chad Morris spent the preseason stressing the importance of creating depth at the running back position, and it paid off against the Vols.
Shaun Shivers got the first crack at the defense after Bigsby exited and carried 14 times for 65 yards and a touchdown. D.J. Williams came in and carried 11 times for 66 yards and a score.
Three of the latter’s carries, for 36 yards, came on back-to-back-to-back plays with both starting tackles out and ended in the touchdown that gave the home team a 17-point lead.
4. The Nix-to-Schwartz connection gives and takes
The first time Bo Nix targeted Anthony Schwartz in the end zone did not end well for Auburn.
The sophomore quarterback fired the ball into coverage on the run on third-and-15 from the 20-yard line in the first quarter. The junior wide receiver flashed open for a second, but didn't attack the ball, and it was picked off.
The interception was the first of Nix's career at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
That duo made up for the gaffe on the Tigers' next possession, though, with Nix hitting a wide-open Schwartz for a 54-yard touchdown that put the Tigers on the board.
Nix completed 17 of 26 passes for 220 yards. Schwartz caught three for 84 yards and the score.