The Auburn defense entered Saturday’s game against Tennessee with the challenge of stopping Volunteers quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, generally accepted as the weaker of the two quarterbacks named Jarrett on the field. By the game’s conclusion, those same defenders were busy explaining away an afternoon they’d all like to forget.
Auburn’s defense had no answer for Guarantano and the Volunteers’ aerial attack in a 30-24 home loss. The Tennessee redshirt sophomore threw for 328 yards and two touchdowns and consistently torched the Tigers’ secondary deep, with eight of his 21 completions gaining at least 19 yards.
Guarantano’s 322 passing yards and 128.1 quarterback rating stood as new season-highs in a matchup that was a tremendous step back by the Tigers’ defense, which entered ranked 30th in passing defense.
“It looked to me like the quarterback put a lot of balls on the outside where only his guy could catch it. I know there were four or five of them like that,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “Obviously, they made some big plays, and they made some third down-and-long plays. We had trouble getting off the field, which is really uncharacteristic.”
Senior linebacker Deshaun Davis attributed most of Auburn’s problems to simply not making plays in one-on-one situations. Auburn’s pass defense consistently pressured Guarantano and sacked the quarterback three times, but more than once the onslaught of defenders in pursuit were a step behind his release.
What happened far too often was Guarantano finding a seam and putting the football where only his target could get his hands on it.
“He made some surprisingly good throws — I'm not going to lie,” Davis said. “I don't think he's a terrible quarterback, but the way he played today superseded what I thought his arm talent and his accuracy was. Kudos to him. He made some good throws, and the receivers made some great downfield plays for him.”
A key example of Guarantano handling the Auburn pressure with relative ease came in the turning point of the game.
With Auburn holding a 17-13 lead with three minutes to go in the third quarter, Guarantano took the shotgun snap and faked a hand-off before stepping back in the pocket. As Auburn free safety Jeremiah Dinson charged in on a blitz, Guarantano flung the ball to the right corner of the end zone toward receiver Juan Jennings and nickelback Jordyn Peters.
In another important one-on-one situation, Jennings won the contentious battle for the ball and fell into the end zone to leave Auburn trailing for the first time in the game.
The most critical part of the play wasn’t Guarantano making another near-perfect pass; it was Dinson being ejected for targeting after hitting Guarantano with his facemask.
“There's never no intention,” Dinson said of the penalty. “I was just trying to make a play there. He clubbed me in the air a little bit, and the official made a call.”
The loss of Dinson and cornerback Jamel Dean, who left the game in the first half due to injury, only exacerbated what was a poor game for the pass defense.
“Jamel, he fought hard and couldn't finish the game in the second half,” Malzahn said. “Dinson's one of the leaders on this team and is like a coach on the field. Anytime you lose him, that's extremely tough. It's really tough not to have either one of those guys, but still, hey, that's part of it. Everybody's got to step up and make plays.”
Thanks to the two juniors’ departures, Auburn was forced to fill the back end of their defense with players such as freshman cornerback Roger McCreary, whose only prior experience came against Alabama State, as well as fellow inexperienced freshmen Smoke Monday and Jamien Sherwood.
Dinson spoke highly of the younger players’ efforts in his absence before admitting it was tough to watch from the sidelines as the Volunteers took control. Although his hit on Guarantano will also force him to sit for the first half against Ole Miss next week, the junior remains optimistic about where he, the defense and the team can go from here.
"In life, you go through certain things. This team is too strong to be broken apart,” Dinson said. “As a leader, I'm going to make sure everybody is one and everybody has that bond that we built way back in the spring.
"Everything will be alright."