Fourteen seasons ago, in Tennessee's last win over Auburn, former Volunteer safety Deon Grant instantly ignited Neyland Stadium as he picked off the Tigers' first offensive play and raced 19 yards to the end zone for a first quarter score. The defensive touchdown helped UT upend Tommy Tuberville's squad 24-0 on the way to nine wins and a Fiesta Bowl berth.
One year earlier, it was defensive end Shaun Ellis's 90-yard interception return for a touchdown that lifted the Volunteers to a 17-9 victory over Auburn en route to an undefeated season and the school's sixth national championship.
See a pattern here?
Trailing by 14 as halftime approached in Saturday's matchup versus that same SEC West opponent, Jacques Smith did his best to continue that exact trend.
On third-and-4 from the Tiger 23-yard line, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall spun around in the pocket and rolled right, looking to set up a quick screen to tailback to Tre Mason. The pass was a low laser, and with blockers set up in front, the play looked to be yet another huge gain, a sight that was all too common Saturday afternoon.
Only Smith thought otherwise.
"Jacques Smith made a great play," UT head coach Butch Jones said. "He was dropping in coverage in a fire zone and did a great job."
The Ooltewah, Tenn., native, who missed two games earlier this year with a thumb injury, snagged the Marshall liner and rumbled 18 yards for a defensive touchdown.
"I went to go out, the running back flashed across my eyes and that confirmed that I knew what was happening," Smith said. "A slip screen and the quarterback made it a bad throw."
Smith credited his quick instincts and adequate film study.
"It was just a read that I saw on film," Smith said "(The quarterback) gave me the key, and I knew the play was happening immediately."
The pick-six cut the deficit to seven, but a Marshall score on the ensuing possession pushed the Tiger lead back to double digits for good.
In Joshua Dobbs' first home start, the true freshman signal caller threw for a mediocre 128 yards on 16 completions with an interception.
"I felt a little bit more comfortable," Dobbs said. "Every rep is crucial. As the season has progressed, things are becoming more natural. I feel like I am learning well."
Similar to his career debut a week ago at Missouri, Dobbs found some running room in the opposing secondary, scampering for 50 yards on just 10 carries, highlighted by a first quarter designed run up the middle that netted 32 yards.
"Run game is a big part of our offense," Dobbs said. "The offensive line did a great job of controlling the line of scrimmage."
"I'm a bruiser"
Rajion Neal has many titles.
Volunteer running back. Senior team captain. Press conference entertainer.
But assistant coach hitman?
Robert Gillespie may think so.
After Neal's second quarter touchdown run, one that included a multitude of broken tackles and a patented high step as he entered the checkerboards, everyone on the Volunteer sideline seemed to be in an endless state of jubilation and chaos.
Except the Volunteers' running back coach, who apparently injured himself severely in a celebration with the senior tailback.
"I'm still not sure what happened," Neal said. "I am still asking questions about that. (Gillespie) won't tell me, because he told me that I needed to focus on the game. So I am not sure, but I am going to find out.
"I'm a bruiser."
Gillespie was seen with crutches on the sideline and a severe limp leaving the press box postgame.
Jones, who also didn't quite know the details of the situation, attributed the celebration-gone-wrong to Gillespie's strong connection with his players.
"I think it's a coach who loves his players, and we get excited," Jones said. "Rajion Neal made a great play, and it's not the first time that it's happened. But again, Robert puts a lot of effort and energy into coaching those backs, and if anything, it shows how much we care about our players."