Down 14-0 in the second quarter with Auburn on the brink of making it 21-0, Tennessee turned the tide by forcing a turnover and recording a sack on successive series to stave off the Tigers. The Vols also benefitted from a missed Auburn field goal that would have pushed the margin to 17 points thus turning the deficit into a three possession advantage. With the clock ticking its way toward intermission, the Vols went to their hurry up attack and put together an 84-yard, seven-play scoring drive in the final two minutes of the first half to cut to 14-7.
Tennessee tried to build on that stolen momentum on the first series of the second half, but missed a field-goal opportunity. Auburn revved up its running game behind Carnell "Cadillac" Williams who flattened the Vols proud run defense with 186 yards in 36 carries. When Williams wasn't ripping through tackles, he was running over defenders and grinding out yardage at a 5.7 yard per carry clip.
Auburn's high-traction offense towed UT's stop troops into ever deeper water, as the battle-fatigued Vols struggled to keep their heads above water. Coach John Chavis continued to shuffle fresh personnel into the fray, but Auburn had regained the initiative and maintained ownership of the line of scrimmage. When Tennessee committed more defenders to stopping the run, the secondary was easy pickings for the play-action pass. Auburn scored two touchdowns in a five-minute span to seize a commanding 28-7 advantage just 48 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Flush with the taste of Orange blood, the Tigers and their fans sensed a big victory and went in for the kill. Bloodied and battered, the Vols could have gone down for the count, but instead, arose to the challenge like a true contender. Pressed to weave his mastery of the passing game, Casey Clausen came out firing and Tennessee's receivers stepped up to pull down clutch catches and produced big plays.
In a rapid reversal of roles, Auburn's defense suddenly seemed helpless to stop Tennessee's offensive surge, as Clausen and Company sliced up the Tiger secondary like it was smoked salmon. What Tennessee's attack lacked in consistency it made up for in brevity, as the Vols three touchdowns drives covered 227 total yards in 6:42 of action and 25 plays. That's an impressive per scoring drive average of 75.6 yards in 2:14 and 8.3 plays.
UT was moving at the same clip on its final drive that reached Auburn's 29 when a first down interception ended the rally before it could reach pay dirt and force the issue to overtime for the second straight week. Auburn had better balance and won the war in the trenches. The Tigers also finished the game with a plus-one turnover ratio which, ultimately, preserved the win.
Although Tennessee is far beyond moral victories, the comeback did allow the Vols to save face and it helped to soften their fall from the top ten. Last year's team would have never recovered from Auburn's early flurry and may have lost by 30 points. UT still remains in position to capture the SEC East if they can find a way to beat Georgia on Saturday. Clearly, there are problems to correct before posting such an upset becomes probable, and some of the problems may not be correctable in the short term.
The lack of experienced defensive tackles has been a concern since Tennessee graduated it's entire starting D-line for the second consecutive season. It was further exacerbated by the absence of competition tested players. Additionally, the arrested development of redshirt freshman LaRon Harris and the academic shortcomings of junior college signee Zarnell Fitch further eroded the line's talent level. Mondre Dickerson and Greg Jones earned the starting tackle jobs, but the background of both players was at defensive end. Ditto for J.T. Mapu, who was promoted to starter for the Auburn contest. Mapu brings a high-energy level but lacks the bulk and strength to compensate for his inexperience this point.
Matt McGlothlin is a six-foot-tall walk-on who often appears overmatched against big, veteran linemen (the only kind that occupy the trenches for SEC teams). Anthony McDaniel is a true freshman with loads of potential but no experience at D-tackle. Redshirt freshman Justin Harrell has impressed coaches since the first day he walked on the practice field last fall, but he has been sidelined by injuries for over a year. He's expected to get his first taste of game action this week against Georgia. How much can UT expect from a player playing college football and defensive tackle for the first time after a year on the shelf?
While Tennessee's problems inside were always known, it was first exposed by South Carolina which designed a game plan to attack the middle with the run. This allow the Gamecocks to exploit Tennessee's weakest defensive link and to neutralize UT's strongest defensive component. By using two tight ends opponents can spread Tennessee's line and better isolate the D-tackles. They can also run the ball straight at Tennessee's linebackers thereby negating their quickness and ability to purse.
UT's Kevin Simon and Kevin Burnett disrupted offenses the first three games and piled up scores of tackles. The last two weeks they have become stationary targets forced to engaged offensive linemen in zone blocking schemes. As a result, their tackle totals have dropped dramatically as has their impact on the game. Additionally, fighting off waves of big linemen play after play takes away the legs of UT's super quick outside linebackers, rendering them less effective as pass rushers and blitzers.
Tennessee's defense is designed to keep blockers off the linebackers through gap control by the defensive tackles. When John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth played those roles, they could essentially occupy four blockers with their size, strength and ability to penetrate, leaving the linebackers free to pursue and destroy.
Now UT's defensive tackles are being driven out of position, leaving the linebackers to take on blockers and forcing DBs to make tackles. Safeties Rashad Baker and Gibril Wilson combined for 20 stops against Auburn to equal the tackles recorded by Simon, Burnett and Mike backer Robert Peace who had just six stops vs. Auburn. When the Vols defense is functioning properly, it eliminates all vertical seams and forces ball carriers to run horizontally. Tennessee is then able to destroy the timing of the run and engage in pursuit which is its strong suit. Auburn's backs were sometimes five and 10 yards down field before the Vols ever made contact.
There are some slants and blitzes Tennessee can use against the run, but until the Vols are able beat their opponent one-on-one in the trenches, or at least gain a stalemate, such tactics will only have marginal results, and they leave the defense more vulnerable to big plays. There are also techniques defensive tackles can execute to create gap exchange with the linebackers, but they require a much higher degree of experience than the Vols currently have available. Getting more support from the safeties is another option, however, Georgia has the means to make the Vols pay dearly for such deployment.
Tennessee could also use some five and six man looks up front, unfortunately, a departure from their base defense is more likely to amplified its lack of experience than it is to solve the problem.
It's a difficult challenge for coach Chavis because until you can shutdown the A and B gaps and prevent teams from running off tackle, you can't successfully defend any phase of an offense. Another problem is Tennessee's level of emotional reserve after playing an overtime game at home sandwiched between two arduous SEC road games.
Furthermore, UT will probably have more problems maintaining balance on offense against a Georgia defense that is the strongest the Vols have seen this season. That could result in even a greater disparity than the 12 minutes Auburn enjoyed in time of possession.
A win over the Bulldogs would make all right in Big Orange Country. It would restore confidence and minimize the the fallout from the Auburn defeat. A fourth straight loss to Georgia would all but end Tennessee's chances of winning in the SEC East and could easily send the Vols spiraling to four losses in five games with contests at Alabama and Miami looming ominously on the horizon.
Clearly, there is a line in the sand on Saturday, and if there's a better performance in Tennessee's D-line, the bottom line of this season can still be impressive.