Comcast Cable was on the fritz in Knoxville and much of the region during Tennessee’s game against Auburn on Saturday. So were the Volunteers’ defense and special teams.
In a performance evoking images of Sal Sunseri’s Keystone Cops last season, UT defenders were whiffing to beat the band while unsuccessfully trying to hold that Tiger.
The Tennessee defense gave up 444 yards rushing in a 55-23 loss to No. 7 Auburn. The Vols hadn’t been ground up like that since Alabama rushed for 457 yards in 1986, an opponents’ record.
Cam Newton was probably somewhere smiling at Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, who rushed 14 times for 214 yards and two TDs while smoothly operating first-year head coach Gus Malzahn’s fast-tempo, formation-laden attack.
Of course, UT coach Butch Jones appeared more impressed with Auburn’s speed than its scheme.
“Even when we had individuals in position, we couldn't get him down,” Jones said. “He's a great player and give him a lot of credit, but obviously (it’s) disappointing in a lot of aspects.”
ESPN’s Mark May threw out a Johnny Manziel comparison at halftime.
“I’d be more impressed if he did it against a defender,” fellow analyst Lou Holtz responded.
Color commentator Brian Griese referred to the Vols’ defense as “atrocious.” His play-by-play partner, Dave Pasch, added atrocious might be “kind.”
Tailback Tre Mason rushed for 117 yards and three TDs on 20 carries.
Granted, it’s no secret that Malzahn’s an exceptional play-caller capable of keeping his offense one step ahead of his counterparts. And half a step was all most of the Tigers needed against UT’s would-be tacklers.
Still, it was difficult to see this coming. The Tigers, many would say, have overachieved – the Las Vegas oddsmakers among them. Auburn was only a seven-point favorite, and a sold-out crowd at Neyland Stadium anticipated something similar to Tennessee’s upset of South Carolina or the near miss against Georgia last month.
A nail-biter did appear to be materializing. The Vols’ offensive line was getting push, Rajion Neal (20 carries, 124 yards, one TD) and Marlin Lane (12 carries, 53 yards) were running with purpose and even raw true freshman quarterback Josh Dobbs was making enough plays with his arm and feet for cautious optimism in his second start.
And UT was still within 27-20 when defensive end Jacques Smith made an impressive interception that he returned 18 yards for a TD with 1:28 left in the first half.
However, Marshall answered with a 38-yard score 27 seconds later, Corey Grant returned the second half’s opening kickoff 90 yards for a TD as if he were on a sandlot and, suddenly, Tennessee seemed more likely to allow 60-plus points than to win.
Tennessee’s kick and punt coverages were as porous as the defense. Auburn’s Chris Davis returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown in the first half – after muffing it. Davis also returned a punt 42 yards to the Tennessee 22-yard line.
“A kickoff return to start the second half … that's unacceptable,” Jones said. “A punt return for a touchdown, it's unacceptable.”
Tennessee is in desperate need of more team speed. Jones knew that before he was even hired.
And he’ll definitely upgrade in short order with the noise he’s making on the recruiting trail. But if the Vols (1-5, 4-6) don’t win out and reach a bowl game, a few of those potential recruits could become as elusive as Auburn’s skill players were Saturday.
Most Tennessee fans probably would’ve taken a 7-6 season in August, and with a home game against Vanderbilt and a visit to Kentucky remaining, that’s still obviously within reach.
But a repeat performance of Saturday would almost certainly get them beat against the Commodores, and then Tennessee would have to tackle the prospects of another disappointing offseason.
Trey Williams is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org