They say that if you keep swinging, you’ll make contact.
And so it was for the Tennessee Vols at No. 21 Auburn Saturday.
You may think I’m crazy, but even in the 40-14 loss to West Virginia in Charlotte, N.C. last month, you could see things were different and there were some improvements (toughness, play calling, effort). Sure, the Florida games was a mess. Six turnovers, a safety and six penalties for 59 yards cost the Vols 26 points. What was the final? 47-21, a 26-point margin. At Georgia, the breaks went against the Vols in the first half as Georgia took a 24-0 lead. Once Tennessee got on track, it cut the lead to 12 points with under four minutes to play.
Georgia benefitted from Isaac Nauta’s freak 41-yard fumble return, Tennessee’s offsides call after Trevon Flowers intercepted Jake Fromm at the 1 and, Austin Pope’s fumble through the end zone after a 51-yard completion. Yet the Vols were 12 points down to the nation’s then-No. 2-ranked team until late in the game.
General Neyland mentioned the breaks twice in his seven Game Maxims. No. 2 says, “Play for and make the breaks and when one comes your way, SCORE!” Maxim No. 3 says, “If at first the game, or the breaks, go against you, put on more steam.” The breaks were important to The General.
Tennessee just hadn’t had a lot of them…until Saturday.
The Vols played for, made the breaks and scored off of them in a 30-24 victory over the Tigers, ending an 11-game SEC skid and a five-game slide against Auburn. Vols’ coach Jeremy Pruitt has been beating the drum about execution. When you execute, good things happen and that was the case Saturday.
Sure, it took a while for the Vols to get going. The Big Orange defense was suspect in that first quarter, but they progressively got better. So did the air game. Tennessee was somewhat pedestrian on the ground, but quarterback Jarrett Guarantano had a breakout game Saturday. He was pinpoint on The Plains, completing 21 of 32 passes for 328 yards, two touchdowns and zero picks. Yes, he was sacked three times, but he distributed the ball well and went long effectively.
Consider that the Vols had four receivers with catches of 25 yards or better. Jauan Jennings hauled in five for 71 yards and a score (long of 25), Ty Chandler had five grabs for 62 (long of 42), Josh Palmer made some circus catches and had three receptions for 84 yards (long of 42) and Marquez Callaway had highlight reel snags. He pulled in two catches for 55 yards with a long of 30. Nine different receivers made catches.
That tells me Guarantano went through his progressions well, had time and hung in there to make good throws. He took a few hits after he released the ball and showed toughness, which he’s done all year.
The Vols were effective on third down. They were 10-19 on third down. That’s a big improvement.
There’s still work to do, but you have a feeling that Tennessee is turning the corner. This was a signature win in the infant tenure of Pruitt. You see the Vols doing the little things better. The team is taking ownership and being accountable. Tennessee has enjoyed a modicum of success. Now let’s see how it manages this fortune.
It won’t be easy with Alabama next. The No. 1-ranked Tide didn’t look especially crisp against a vapid Missouri team Saturday night, but it’ll be hitting on all cylinders when it girds up vs. the Vols 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Neyland Stadium. I harbor no illusion that the Vols will beat Bama. But I expect them to carry the fight for 60 minutes and show continued improvement.
When you look at the standings, the Vols are no longer in the cellar. When you look at the remaining schedule, it suddenly looks a bit more manageable. If they play .500 ball the rest of the way, they go bowling and, with the invite, get 15 additional practices, which is like another spring session.
Maybe the breaks are starting to turn Tennessee’s way.
Jim Steele is creator of volunteersportsradio.com and host of The Pressbox, which airs 4-6 p.m. CT Monday-Thursday on WRJB 95.9 FM, Camden, Tenn.