In bend but don’t break fashion, the Auburn defense held firm against Tennessee for a 30-17 win in the team’s first game in 21 days.
Allowing a season-high 464 yards may not seem like a defensive victory, but the Auburn defense made the right stops when it counted the most.
The defense allowed two Volunteer scores in the first half, giving the visiting team a 10-0 lead with almost 14 minutes left in the 2nd quarter.
After the early 10-0 lead, points were hard to come by for Tennessee as the Volunteers did not score again until late in the fourth quarter with Auburn already up three-scores.
The play of the day for the Tigers, and the momentum shift in the game, came from safety Smoke Monday.
With seven minutes left in the third quarter, Tennessee fed running back Eric Gray five straight times on the ground to march the football right up the field and into Auburn territory.
Five plays later, quarterback Jarrett Guarantano dropped back to try and find his receiver one-on-one in the back of the right side of the end zone.
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Linebacker Owen Pappoe nearly got to Guarantano for the sack as the 12-yard pass sailed in the right direction but never found the Volunteer receiver as Monday came from across the end zone and snagged the ball.
Monday went untouched by the Volunteers and took the ball 100-yards to the house for the second pick-six of his career.
“I knew he was one of those quarterbacks that liked to stare his receivers down,” Monday said. “I titled one way, came right late, and it was right there. Once the ball was in my hands, I knew I was going to the end zone. I knew as the man I am, I had to make a play, and that’s what I did.”
The Monday pick-six put the Tigers up 20-10, with that score being all the Tigers needed to secure their victory. This season, Auburn is undefeated when it wins or ties the turnover battle.
“Coach Steele tells us every week we need a touchdown on defense,” Monday said. “And everybody has bought into it.”
Auburn’s defense now has recorded at least one interception in the last four games.
“We shouldn’t leave any game without a pick,” said safety Jamien Sherwood.
Monday’s interception highlights the best aspect of Auburn’s defense performance Saturday: defending the red zone.
In four attempts inside the 20-yard-line, the Vols managed to score only twice, with 10 points to show for it. The turnover and a missed field goal were the results of Tennessee’s only other trips to the red zone.
Tennessee also missed a field goal from 50-yards out on their opening drive, which was their only other scoring chance on the night.
“As an Auburn defense, we have always been physical, always been a defense that takes the ball away,” Monday said. “We take pride in taking the ball away and helping our offense out any way we can.”
Owen Pappoe led both teams with 12 tackles, and the defensive line tied a season-high in sacks with four.
Tennessee had a solid night offensively. The Vols converted 60% of their third downs, rushed for over 200 yards and had 28 first downs. However, when the time came, the Auburn defense made the stops needed to come away with the victory.
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