KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – After Tennessee’s 2017 season ended with a loss to Vanderbilt on Nov. 25, quarterback Jarrett Guarantano said the culture was going to change and hard work would be the No. 1 priority for the Volunteers.
“As soon as Jan. 1 hits, we are all going to be back in the weight room; we are going to be back on campus and things are going to change,” he said a little over 10 months ago. “The culture is going to change. We are going to be working our tails off every single day…I think we will be back soon.”
Tennessee’s offseason of hard work came to fruition on Saturday on the Plains in Auburn, Ala. A brilliant game plan by head coach Jeremy Pruitt and offensive coordinator Tyson Helton – coaching from the sideline for the first time this year – allowed Guarantano to spearhead a 30-24 upset victory over the 21st-ranked Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
He passed for a career-high 328 yards and two touchdowns on 21-of-32 pass attempts against an Auburn defense that entered the game ranked sixth in the nation in points allowed and No. 20 in total defense.
Tigers’ opponents entered the game converting just 28 percent of third downs, but the Vols were 10 of 19 (53 percent) on third down for the day. Guarantano completed 11-of-14 passes on third down, including 8-of-8 on third-and-8 or longer.
“I think Jarrett did a really good job today of him having an effect on his teammates.” Pruitt said. “We had some guys today, who I think they played their best football.
“I thought our coaches on the offensive staff put in a really good plan and gave him an opportunity to have success. He did a good job of executing the plan and our guys protected him for the most part. Our wide receivers played really good out there. It was a good team win.”
Pruitt was hired by Director of Athletics Phillip Fulmer on Dec. 7 and he said his expectation “was to win every game we play.” That moxie is rubbing off on his first Tennessee team six games into the 2018 season.
Game-changing plays were made on offense and defense as Tennessee showed no fear in picking up the Vols’ first win at Auburn in 20 years and their first upset victory over a ranked team on the road since 2006.
“The fans were loud,” Guarantano said. “Our team was ready to play, though. We had a long week of practice. We came out ready to go.”
Redshirt junior wide receiver Jauan Jennings had his best game in nearly two years, making clutch third down catches, including a 25-yard touchdown in the third quarter that gave Tennessee the lead for good. He finished with five receptions for 71 yards and secured Auburn’s last-ditch onside kick effort to clinch the win.
Guarantano also found junior Marquez Callaway for gains of 30 yards and 25 yards, and sophomore Josh Palmer for a 42-yard gain on first down early in the fourth quarter that led to sophomore kicker Brent Cimaglia’s third field goal of the day that gave the Vols a 30-17 lead with nine minutes remaining in the game.
Sophomore Ty Chandler scored on a 42-yard catch-and-run, and freshman cornerback Alontae Taylor added touchdown on a fumble recovery after senior defensive linemen Kyle Phillips and Alexis Johnson combined to sack Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham in the third quarter.
“We had many, many explosive plays,” Guarantano said. “(Our wide receivers) did a great job high-pointing the ball. Those 50/50 balls – we talk about it all the time. That is what’s going to win SEC games. There are great defenses and great defensive backs all around, and we know that we have to make those catches in order to compete and they did an excellent job. The offensive line did an excellent job today. That’s one of the best defensive lines in the SEC and in the country. As an offensive I think we played very well. There are definitely things we can fix, and we are going to go back and elaborate on those and work on them. I’m very happy with what we did today.”
Guarantano’s breakout performance came nearly one year to the day of his first career start – a 15-9 loss to South Carolina on Oct. 14, 2017. He has weathered some tough defeats in the year since and Saturday’s upset win at Auburn marked his 12th career start.
“He’s tough,” sophomore left tackle Trey Smith said. “You can’t ask for a better quarterback than him. I’ve got to keep him cleaner. That’s my job. Jarrett just keeps playing. He keeps showing his toughness week in and week out and what type of man he is.”
His emergence on Saturday bodes well for the Vols the rest of the season. No. 1 Alabama is on the horizon followed by a trip to South Carolina. The Vols host Charlotte, No. 14 Kentucky and Missouri before capping the season at Vanderbilt.
As Pruitt said to media from inside Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday following the win, Tennessee is a top tier program that is creating a top tier team. Wins on the road over ranked opponents will go a long way toward bringing the Vols to the top.
“Our guys are working hard to do that,” Pruitt said. “The program is here and it’s our job to create the right team, and we will do it with the men in this locker room and the guys that we are going to recruit.”