AUBURN, Ala. — Tennessee took its third-quarter futility to a new level Saturday night inside Jordan-Hare Stadium, falling to No. 23 Auburn 30-17 to extend its losing streak to five games.
The Volunteers played Auburn to a 10-10 standoff in the first half and trailed 13-10 midway through the third quarter when they assembled a 10-play, 63-yard march to the 12-yard line of the Tigers. Instead of taking the lead or at least pulling even, Tennessee suffered its latest disaster when quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, under pressure from linebacker Owen Pappoe, lofted a pass to Josh Palmer that was intercepted by safety Smoke Monday and returned 100 yards for a touchdown.
Monday's stunning score provided the Tigers their first double-digit lead at 20-10 and represented the fifth touchdown this season gift-wrapped to opponents by Tennessee's offense — a fumble return by Georgia, two interception returns by Kentucky, a fumble return by Alabama and the lengthiest of pick-sixes by Auburn.
"That falls on us," Vols sophomore running back Eric Gray said. "We've got to get that guy on the ground. We can't let him take that one all the way back."
Tennessee regrouped to drive to Auburn's 24-yard line as the third quarter came to a close, but Brent Cimaglia failed to make it a one-possession game again by pushing a 37-yard field-goal attempt wide right with 12:33 remaining.
Auburn improved to 5-2 heading into next Saturday's Iron Bowl showdown at top-ranked Alabama by winning its 29th consecutive homecoming game and 12th straight Jordan-Hare night contest.
"That was a quality win against a talented team," Tigers coach Gus Malzahn said. "We hadn't played in 21 days. The first quarter we were sleepwalking a little bit. We had the interception in the end zone.
"In the second quarter, we woke up and started playing Auburn football."
The Vols, meanwhile, are 2-5 and possess their longest losing streak since opening the 1988 season with six consecutive setbacks. Tennessee would win its last five games that year, earn a share of the 1989 Southeastern Conference title with Alabama and Auburn, then win the 1990 SEC crown outright.
In their current five-game skid, the Vols have been outscored 71-7 in the third quarter.
"I thought our team played extremely hard tonight," Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "We missed a couple of a field goals and had at least a 10-point swing going down in the red area in the third quarter. We struggled at times to get off the field on third down and missed some tackles early in the game, and it all adds up.
"I was really pleased with our effort. We moved the ball well in both halves."
Auburn opened the third quarter Saturday with a 15-play, 65-yard drive that consumed seven minutes and 35 seconds but only resulted in a 27-yard Anders Carlson field goal that provided the Tigers their first lead. Auburn running back D.J. Williams had a 9-yard touchdown run with 7:14 remaining in the game to give the Tigers their largest advantage at 27-10.
Gray had an outstanding night, rushing 22 times for 173 yards (7.9 per carry) and a 1-yard touchdown with 4:07 left that made it 27-17. Guarantano had a stellar first half, completing 15 of 21 passes for 156 yards, but Monday's interception prevented the fifth-year senior from replicating the 30-24 upset of the No. 21 Tigers two years ago in Jordan-Hare.
Freshman Harrison Bailey replaced Guarantano midway through the fourth quarter, leading a touchdown drive and completing seven of 10 passes for 54 yards.
When asked if Bailey could be the starter moving forward, Pruitt said: "I think you have to have to evaluate everyone in your program. Every week, we play the guys who give us the best opportunity, and we'll continue to do that. Jarrett didn't miss two field goals, and he didn't blow a coverage. Did he make a mistake? Absolutely, but I made mistakes in the game."
A 28-yard completion from Guarantano to Velus Jones on Tennessee's opening possession helped the Vols move to Auburn's 27-yard line, but the guests came away empty when Guarantano was sacked and Cimaglia was left on a 50-yard field-goal attempt.
It appeared Tennessee's second drive wouldn't amount to much when the Vols faced third-and-15 at their 15-yard line, but Gray got loose for 33 yards on a delayed draw out to Tennessee's 48. Guarantano then had a 16-yard pass to Gray and a 15-yarder to Jalin Hyatt before keeping for a 9-yard touchdown run and the game's first points at the 5:56 mark.
Auburn took its second possession to Tennessee's 15-yard line, but Bo Nix forced a third-down pass into the end zone that was intercepted by Bryce Thompson. Nix finished 17-of-26 passing for 220 yards with a touchdown and the interception.
The Vols extended their lead to 10-0 on Cimaglia'a 47-yard field goal at the 13:42 mark of the second quarter, but the two-score lead did not last long. Auburn receiver Anthony Schwartz got behind Tennessee's secondary and was all alone while hauling in a 54-yard scoring strike that pulled the Tigers within 10-7 with 12:06 before halftime.
Auburn pulled even at 10 with 5:36 left in the half on a 25-yard Carlson field goal, and the game remained deadlocked until intermission.
"You've got to take the positives into next week," Gray said. "We played more of a complete game tonight. If you look at our last game against Arkansas and this game, you defintely see an improvement."
Said senior defensive end Matthew Butler: "I'm frustrated that we can't get over the hump. It's a mistake here and a lack of execution there, and we've got to get over that hump."
Odds and ends
Auburn has won seven of the past eight series meetings and holds a 29-22-3 edge. Vols sophomore quarterback Brian Maurer did not make the 70-player travel roster Saturday, which was two weeks after redshirt sophomore J.T. Shrout was the odd man out at Arkansas. Committing to Tennessee for a second time Saturday was Tiyon Evans, the three-star running back out of Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College. Evans is the 27th commitment for the Vols, who are 11th on the 247Sports.com team rankings and have more nonbinding pledges than any other Power Five program.