Smoked again: Auburn football defense continues to create havoc with turnovers in win vs. Tennessee
AUBURN — Smoke Monday knew Jarrett Guarantano was “one of those quarterbacks who loved to stare his receivers down.” Tennessee’s signal-caller did exactly that on second-and-7 from the Auburn 12-yard line late in the third quarter Saturday, locking onto Josh Palmer from the snap.
Monday saw it. Palmer might have had a step on Roger McCreary running a post route toward the back of the south end zone at Jordan-Hare Stadium, but the junior Auburn safety knew exactly where the ball was going and leapt in front of it.
“He wasn’t doing a good job of looking us off tonight, so I tilted away and came back late,” Monday said. “It was right there.”
Eleven seconds later, Monday was in the north end zone celebrating his 100-yard pick six. It was the game-changing play in Auburn’s 30-17 win over Tennessee.
The No. 21-ranked Tigers led just 13-10 at that point, after a 15-play, 65-yard drive coming out of halftime netted only a chip-shot field goal. The Volunteers responded with a 10-play, 63-yard march into the red zone.
Running back Eric Gray ran on five straight plays that gained 49 yards. Ty Chandler gained 14 more to get the ball down to the 12. Tennessee was in position to take the lead or at the very least tie the game in a stadium where it won two years ago.
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But pressure from linebacker Owen Pappoe knocked Guarantano off his base, and Monday did the rest. It was the second pick-six of his career and the Tigers’ first this season. Auburn went from potentially being down four to up 10.
“I think that shifted a lot of the momentum towards us,” Pappoe said. “We took off from there.”
Those are the types of plays for which Kevin Steele’s defense actively hunts. Safety Jordyn Peters described it as “what we’re built upon – making plays on the ball, creating turnovers, creating havoc basically.”
“We want to come out there and put fear into opposing teams, offenses' hearts,” the senior continued.
Auburn has done it more than once. McCreary’s end zone interception return late in the first half of the opener against Kentucky changed the momentum of that game, even if his 100-yard touchdown return was taken off the board by a penalty. Three second-half turnovers sealed the victory.
Another McCreary end-zone interception at Ole Miss set up the Tigers’ first touchdown, and Peters’ on the final play sealed the win. Nehemiah Pritchett nearly returned one for a score against LSU. Christian Tutt did reach the end zone after a recovering a fumble.
For the offense, 7-on-7 drills during practice are called, well, 7-on-7 drills. Defenders calls it their interception drill.
“We shouldn’t leave any game without a pick,” safety Jamien Sherwood said. “We just want to get our ball production up and he got it up.”
It makes what has been a “bend-but-don’t-break” unit tick. Those teams that Auburn racked up all those turnovers against – Kentucky, Ole Miss, LSU and now Tennessee – averaged nearly 410 yards per game. The Volunteers averaged more yards per play (6.3) than the Tigers have allowed in any game this season, yet they scored just 17 points. None of those teams scored more than 28, and three failed to reach 20.
Auburn is now 5-0 when it wins or at least ties the turnover battle this season and 53-15 overall during Gus Malzahn's 100-game tenure.
And Monday never thought for a second to kneel in the end zone. The Tigers’ defense feels it had a touchdown ripped away from it when McCreary’s was called back against Kentucky. It’s why he tried again against Ole Miss, even though it turned out to be the wrong decision when he was tackled at his own 5-yard line.
You could tell Monday’s teammates wanted it, too. They erupted out in front of him like a convoy paving his path down the home sideline. Sherwood made a block. Big Kat Bryant, Colby Wooden and Zakoby McClain made a couple.
No Volunteer even touched Monday.
“Once the ball was in my hands, I knew I was going to the end zone,” Monday said. “Coach Steele tells us every week, we need a touchdown on defense, we need a touchdown on defense, and everybody bought into it. So, when the opportunity came, everybody seized it.”
Said Malzahn: “That changed the dynamics of the game.”
Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.