KNOXVILLE — There was very little in the way of surprises on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
When Auburn’s SEC-best rushing attack faced Tennessee’s SEC-worst run defense, it went how you’d expect.
The seventh-ranked Tigers sped around and powered through the Volunteers, piling up 444 rushing yards and scoring twice for special teams in a 55-23 rout of Tennessee in front of a sold out stadium on a gray November afternoon in Knoxville.
Georgia cornerback-turned-Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall ran for 214 yards and two scores, and tailback Tre Mason added 117 yards and three touchdowns as the Tigers easily surpassed their season average of 306 rushing yards per game.
“They were doing what we expected them do, but we’ve just got to execute and not fold on anything,” Tennessee linebacker Dontavis Sapp said.
“We knew what they were going to try to come in here and do, and they pretty much did it.”
After throwing only nine passes in a 35-17 win at Arkansas last week, Auburn needed just seven passes and 35 passing yards to hammer the Vols, who gave up 339 yards on the ground to Missouri a week ago. Of its 60 plays, Auburn had 15 runs of 10 or more yards and averaged 8.4 yards per carry.
It was a bad matchup from the start for the Vols, who are at their worst against an offense that gets the ball to edge with either speedy backs and receivers or a running quarterback.
“I think it’s the ability to play in space,” first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “There was a number of times we had an individual there, and we couldn’t make the play. You’ve got to give them credit.
“Tennessee’s not the only school they’ve done it against.”
Jones lamented what he called a “vivid, vivid speed differential” between his team and the visitors. It was the third straight week an SEC offense exposed the Vols’ lack of speed in the second level. Missouri rolled up 502 yards of offense last week after Alabama hung 479 yards on Tennessee.
“It’s been a great gauge of where we’re at and where we need to go to improve and get better as a football team and a football program,” Jones said.
“That still doesn’t excuse what just occurred,” he added.
Auburn is the first team to run for more than 400 yards against Tennessee since Nebraska did it in the 1998 Orange Bowl.
“We knew they were a fast team,” Vols defensive end Jacques Smith said. “We knew what their game plan was, and for us not to go and execute our own game plan, it hurts a lot. That’s something we’re going to be looking forward to this coming bye week, just working on those details and making us a better defense.”
Tennessee needs to get better on offense and special teams, too. The Vols gained 354 yards of offense, but three drives into Auburn territory ended in field goals. Chris Davis returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown and Corey Grant took the opening kickoff of the second half for a score, and those were just the scoring returns for the Tigers.
Auburn completed just three passes, the fewest the Tigers have had in a victory since beating Mississippi State in 1985.
“They did what they’ve been doing,” Vols safety Brian Randolph said. “Our reads on the inside brought us in a little bit more and gave them a chance to get to the edge. That was a little bit different, but for the most part we got ready for the game good.”
Since recording its first win against a ranked team in four years with an upset of South Carolina, the Vols, who just finished a stretch of four games against teams ranked 11th or better in consecutive weeks, have losses by 35, 28 and 32 points.
“I think we’re just going through a little rough patch that we’ve just kind of got to find our way out of,” tailback Rajion Neal said. “I feel that we’re still mentally tough, but we’re also hurting a little bit from these losses. I think that the work we put in, we just feel that we deserve more, and it hurts.
“It hurts more when you work hard at it and you’re really giving what you can to go out there and get a win.”
The frustration was evident on Jones’ face, and the passion was apparent in his voice while he ranted about the state of his program.
“I know exactly where we’re at in our football program and what we need to do to move forward and get better,” he said. “I will tell you this — and you can write this — we will get it done. This place is too special. The only variable we have is time. Somebody says, ‘Why the heck are you doing that?’ I believe in it. I believe in Tennessee football. I believe in our fan base.
“I gave up a lot to come here because I want to be a part of building something special and having that responsibility of getting Tennessee football back. I love Tennessee, and our pride and our passion for this place drives us every day in recruiting, in developing our players.
“If it kills me, it kills me, but I’m going to put everything that I have in it to get Tennessee football back.”
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...