KNOXVILLE – Tennessee’s SEC-worst run defense was sure to be tested against Auburn, the SEC’s leading rushing team.
The Vols failed the examination.
The Tigers, led by quarterback Nick Marshall’s 214 yards on the ground, ran all over the Vols. Auburn racked up 444 total yards rushing, Tennessee’s second-worst run defense effort in a game ever, in a 55-23 rout of the Vols in Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
“Obviously them being able to run the football – Marshall being able to control the game with his legs,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “Even when we had individuals in position, we couldn’t get him down. He’s a great player. Give him a lot of credit.”
Marshall’s rushing effort was the fourth-best against Tennessee ever in a single game. He was just 4 yards shy of breaking that record, a mark he likely would’ve reached had Auburn not pulled its starters late. Marshall completed just three passes all night, but with the run game in high gear, the passing game was hardly needed for the Tigers.
"They couldn’t really stop the run so we just kept our foot on their throat and just ran it down their throat,” said Marshall, a converted defensive back
And while Marshall's efforts were impressive on the ground, Auburn was equally spectacular on special teams. The Tigers ran a punt and a kickoff back for a touchdown in addition to a 35-yard kickoff return and a 42-yard punt return. The 42-yard punt return set Auburn up in the red zone for a quick score, essentially meaning the Tigers accounted for three scores on special teams.
“I think it was pretty evident to anybody who watched the game first of all special teams – we take tremendous pride in playing special teams and we gave them 21 points in [special] teams alone,” Jones said. “It doesn’t give you a chance right from the get go.”
After a frustrating two-game road trip, Tennessee appeared to be back to its successful ways at home in the opening quarter. The Vols got two field goals from Michael Palardy and a bruising 17-yard touchdown run from running back Rajion Neal and blocked an Auburn extra point to build a 13-6 lead early in the second quarter.
Tennessee’s virtually non-existent run game from last week showed signs of returning as the Vols battled into the second quarter. But while Tennessee moved the ball at times, Auburn’s overall team speed killed the Vols.
It took Auburn just eight total offensive plays to score three consecutive touchdowns in the second quarter. The Tigers moved the ball in chunks on the ground and on special teams. Tennessee struggled to keep up all game.
“Vivid, vivid speed differential,” said Jones. “It’s been a great gauge of where we’re at, where we need to go to improve, and get better as a football team and a football program.”
Bright spots for Tennessee included a 124-yard effort on the ground from Neal and a 16-yard pick-six for defensive end Jacques Smith, who read an Auburn screen play, intercepted it and ran it back for a touchdown that temporarily pulled the Vols back to within a score in the second quarter.
But, all in all, Saturday was another reminder that Tennessee is a team still in rebuilding mode, several steps behind a top-10 team like Auburn. The Tigers have averaged top-10 recruits classes over the past four years while UT has lagged behind.
Jones knows that’s the challenge facing UT as a program.
“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,” Jones said. “I love Tennessee. Our pride and our passion for this place drives us every day in recruiting, in developing our players, and if it kills me, it kills me. I'm going to put everything I have in it to get Tennessee football back."
The Vols are off next week before facing Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Tennessee must win out to reach bowl eligibility.
• Tennessee running back coach Robert Gillespie injured himself in the first half while celebrating Neal’s touchdown. He finished coaching the first half on crutches and coached the second half from the press box.
• Despite the overall struggles on special teams, kicker Michael Palardy had another solid day. He said he struggled with kick placement at times, but he hit all three field goals and averaged 46.6 yards per punt. He also added two tackles on special teams.
• Reserve defensive back Geraldo Orta was helped off the field during the game with an apparent leg injury. No update on his status was given after the game. Defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry was on crutches before the game and didn’t dress out or play.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga