AUBURN, Ala. — Of the 12 Southeastern Conference football programs to suit up and play Saturday, only Alabama and Florida amassed more total yards than the 464 that Tennessee produced inside Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Only Kentucky and South Carolina, however, scored fewer points than the Volunteers, who wasted a solid offensive effort during the 30-17 setback that resulted in a fifth consecutive defeat.
"I thought our offensive line blocked well, and we really moved the ball well from 30 to 30," third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt said after his Vols fell to 2-5. "We didn't come away with points three times, and that was a big part of the game. We ran the ball. We blocked well. There were a lot of holes there, so we kind of established our run game, which was good to see."
Smoke Monday's 100-yard interception return at the expense of Jarrett Guarantano and a pair of missed Brent Cimaglia field-goal attempts keyed Auburn's fifth victory and overshadowed a dominating performance by Tennessee's ground-game components. The Vols rushed 41 times for 222 yards against the Tigers, averaging a robust 5.4 yards per carry.
Sophomore running back Eric Gray led the way with 22 carries for 173 yards (7.9 per rush), while senior Ty Chandler added nine carries for 40 yards (4.4). The two also had a combined seven receptions for 86 yards.
"It was something we all prided ourselves in," Vols senior left guard Trey Smith said. "We were going to move the ball and keep our running backs up. When you have a good running game, it feels good just pounding people back and back and back. You look in their eyes, and they're about to roll over dead. We had some good results out there, but we can be even better."
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is happy he won't be around to witness that should the Vols have a superior rushing assault still in store for this stretch run.
"They've got some big offensive linemen who are very talented," Malzahn said. "I think all those guys were on some type of preseason team. They were lining up, getting in heavy (formations) and running it right at us.
"We really buckled up in the red zone, which was huge, because that's a good offensive line with a couple of good running backs."
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Saturday's game was just how well the Vols ran the ball during the third quarter, which has been a disastrous stretch for Tennessee this season. Gray had five carries for 49 yards in the third-quarter drive that ended with Monday's back-breaking pick-six, and he had two more rushes for 25 yards to conclude the quarter.
Tennessee drove to Auburn's 15-yard line in the early stages of the fourth quarter, but Cimaglia's miss of a 37-yard try left the Vols still staring at a 20-10 deficit.
"Adversity is part of the game," Gray said. "Ultimately we've got to keep playing, even when those things happen. We're all a team, and we all play together. I feel like we did play together tonight and took a big step forward in trying to turn it on and play for those 60 minutes.
"We've just got to finish the game."
Pruitt was singing a similar tune, and with good reason. Tennessee's 464 yards shattered the previous season high of 422 against Missouri on Oct. 3, but the Vols have endured five turnovers returned for touchdowns in the past five games.
"I felt like our offensive staff put together a package that we could execute," Pruitt said. "We did throw the ball a lot early in the game, and we got into a rhythm running the ball. We did offensively what we wanted to do except not coming away with points three times. I thought we were efficient on offense.
"We ran the ball and were better on third down, but we've got to finish drives."
Odds and ends
Gray ranks third in the SEC this season with 651 rushing yards, trailing South Carolina's Kevin Harris (875) and Alabama's Najee Harris (797). ... Guarantano now has more career starts (32) for the Vols than Andy Kelly, who had 31 from 1989-91. ... The Vols have recorded at least one sack in 15 straight games. ... Sophomore cornerback Warren Burrell started for the first time since last season's Florida game. ... Saturday's loss was the 400th in program history, with No. 300 having transpired in a 30-3 loss to Maryland in the 2002 Peach Bowl.