Jarrett Guarantano did so many things so well for so long.
The much maligned Tennessee senior quarterback scored on a 9-yard run to put the Vols up 7-0.
He helped convert third downs.
He engineered scoring drives to give the Vols a 10-0 lead and led another drive that resulted in a missed field goal.
He checked to the right running plays.
He was doing so many things well.
And then, disaster struck with a capital D.
After Auburn took a 13-10 lead on the first possession of the second half, Tennessee drove to the Auburn 12, within striking range of re-taking the lead.
Guarantano took the snap from the shotgun, stared down his receiver, fired into coverage, then watched Auburn’s Smoke Monday snatch the ball 1-yard deep in the end zone, then streak up the sideline 101 yards for a momentum-swinging, gut-wrenching, are-you-kidding-me touchdown that pretty much sealed the deal.
There was still more than 17 minutes to be played, but the Vols (2-5) were never able to wrestle the momentum away from No. 23 Auburn (5-2) as the Tigers prevailed 30-17.
Guarantano has now thrown a nation’s worst four pick sixes since the start of the 2019 season.
And the bad news keeps coming for this once-proud program.
Tennessee has lost five in a row for the first time since 1988.
And it has lost five in a row by double digits for the first time in program history.
“Just frustrating,’’ said Tennessee senior offensive lineman Trey Smith. “No one goes out and does all that work just to lose. We fought hard tonight. It comes down to executing at clutch time in the game.’’
Tennessee has not been able to do that, especially in the second half.
During this record-breaking five-game losing skid, the Vols have been outscored 71-7 in the third quarter and 108-14 in the second half.
How does Smith explain the second-half slide?
“Quite frankly,’’ he said, “I don’t even know what to tell you. Just got to get better at it.’’
Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt pretty much echoed Smith’s sentiments.
“It’s frustrating for our players,’’ Pruitt said. “It’s frustrating for our fans. It’s frustrating for everybody.
“We played hard. We played together. But we didn’t finish some drives and we left some points on the board.’’
There were some bright spots.
The Vols led 10-0 and had sustained drives of nine, nine and eight plays to start the game.
The Vols also ran the ball effectively, rolling up 222 yards as Eric Gray rushed for 173 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. He also had 49 yards on three receptions.
And UT was efficient – finally – on third downs, converting 9 of 15.
But two missed field goals and the pick six thwarted any chance the Vols had of pulling an upset against an 11-point favorite.
“If we keep making mistakes,’’ Smith said, “these are the results we’re getting.’’
Pruitt bemoaned the wasted opportunities.
“I was proud of way the guys played hard,’’ he said. “We’ve got to play cleaner football to win in this league.’’
Defensive tackle Matthew Butler, who had six tackles, took the defeat hard.
“It’s not a case of not wanting to do it or not preparing,’’ Butler said. “It’s a mistake here, lack of execution there.’’
He felt UT had a “fantastic’’ defensive scheme against Auburn and put the Tigers’ offensive line “on its heels.’’
But “we didn’t execute well enough to win. … I don’t think we’ve been outplayed by an offense this year. We’ve beat ourselves.’’
Butler must not remember the Alabama game. Or the second half against Arkansas, Georgia and Kentucky.
Now, a Tennessee team that was riding an eight-game winning streak in early October has fallen out of favor with an impatient fan base that expects more.
Much of the angst is aimed at Pruitt.
But Smith defended his coach.
“I think it’s an easy thing to look down and say we’ve lost four or five in a row now and we’re not playing well,’’ Smith said.
“It’s a culture change and it’s not going to be immediate. The mentality has to shift. You have to give him time.
“Coach Pruitt is a great man. It’s something to be around a guy like that, an honest guy. … He’s not going to sugar coat things. He has our best interest at heart. You don’t find a lot of that in this industry.’’