KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee Volunteers fought and lost big Saturday to yet another top-tier opponent in seventh-ranked Auburn, 55-23. After blowout losses at Alabama and Missouri, the Vols welcomed Auburn to Knoxville, where the Tigers would deliver a third such defeat -- one that silenced a sold-out Neyland Stadium.
The Vols' offensive line received loads of criticism from their coaches after helping Tennessee rush for just 94 yards against Missouri and only 127 yards against Alabama. The offensive line was bombarded with insults and words aimed to inspire during practice in the week leading up to the game.
"I thought they responded," head coach Butch Jones said Saturday. "I thought we ran the ball effectively, but what was missing was big chunk-yardage plays. When they ran the football it was a 20-yard gain, it was a 30-yard gain. It flipped field position. When we ran the ball, it was 8 yards, it was 4 yards. It was more methodical.
"It gets back to making individuals miss in space, but I love those guys. I'm on them as you all see, but I believe in them and I thought they responded."
The Vols' rushing performance improved against Auburn with 226 yards. Rajion Neal gained 124 yards on 20 carries and had an impressive 17-yard touchdown and his sixth career 100-yard game. The offensive line also opened massive holes for quarterback Joshua Dobbs to scramble for 50 yards and a 32-yard run in the first quarter that led to the Vols' only offensive touchdown of the day.
"The running game is a big part of our offense, and the offensive line did a great job controlling the line of scrimmage," said Dobbs. "Creating holes not only for me but for Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane."
The Vols' rushing game fell apart as the game continued. On their first 15 carries, the Vols ran for 114 yards, but they managed only 111 on the next 28. Five of the possessions stalled out in Auburn territory, ending in either a field goal or a turnover.
The line allowed two sacks for 19 yards. The second 12-yard sack ended a drive short during a pivotal swing in momentum in the second quarter with a tie score (13-13). The resulting punt only rubbed salt in the wound as Auburn's Chris Davis returned the kick 85 yards for a touchdown.
The Vols also failed to convert on valuable short-yardage situations on two of their last three possessions, the first leading to a punt and the third ending with a failed fourth-and-1 conversion.
Contact Sam Gilbreath at firstname.lastname@example.org