Vols defense imposes will on Bulldogs

Tennessee running back Ty Chandler (8) runs for yardage as he's hit by Mississippi State cornerback Cameron Dantzler (3) in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

KNOXVILLE — Kylin Hill entered last Saturday’s game against Tennessee as the leading rusher in the Southeastern Conference with an average of 119.2 yards per game. Thanks to the Tennessee defense, his average went down significantly.

Hill was limited to only 13 yards on 11 carries. Just 13. That’s all anyone needs to know about how the Volunteer defense played in last Saturday’s 20-10 win over Mississippi State. UT’s defense frustrated the Bulldogs all day long as starting quarterback Tommy Stevens was benched after he went 6-for-11 with two interceptions and only 67 yards in the first half. His replacement, freshman Garrett Shrader, didn’t fare much better as he was 5-of-10 with a pick and 79 yards. He wound up leading MSU in rushing yards with 62 because the Tennessee defense simply snuffed out the running backs.

“I think our guys played gap-sound. We shrugged blockers. We changed the line of scrimmage a little bit. We wrapped-up tackled, we gang tackled and made some plays in space. Going into the game we felt like we needed to make their quarterbacks beat us and not let this guy beat us, and that’s kind of what we tried to do there, and I think our kids did a nice job of executing the game plan,” Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt said of how his team shut down Hill.

Tennessee only had eight sacks all season long coming into the Mississippi State game but had seven against the Bulldogs with three of those coming on the final drive when they were trying to get into scoring position. When the MSU quarterbacks weren’t running for their lives, they were throwing the ball to the other team as the UT defense recorded three interceptions. Since Hill was scuttled, that meant the Bulldogs had to go to the air and Pruitt said his defense found ways to make plays. “I think early in the game, we affected the quarterback. We got him with a couple of pressures and sacked him a few times and hit him. It doesn’t take a whole lot for guys to start to look and say, ‘Is this cat coming right here? Is the star coming? Is the safety coming? Is the backer coming? Where are they coming from?’ Our secondary guys were in the right spots, and we got pressure and didn’t let them step up in the pocket on some of those throws.”

The Vols defense wasted little time in imposing their will on the Bulldogs as Mississippi State’s first three possessions resulted in two three-and-outs and an interception on the seventh play of the third drive. Because of all the sacks, Tennessee led 94-0 in total offense at one point in the first half. In total, the Volunteer defense had 10 tackles for loss in the game, three interceptions, and a forced fumble. It was the most complete defensive effort of the entire season and that’s a good sign going forward for a team coached by a man who built some of the best defenses in the nation as an assistant coach. Throughout the past two years, Pruitt has said that he could see improvement in his team, even when they lost. Last Saturday, everyone saw that he was correct.

PICKING THEM APART

Kenneth George Jr. had the first interception for the Volunteers when he picked off Stevens at the UT 10 yard-line. Trevon Flowers had a 14-yard return on his interception but suffered an injury on the play. The final MSU turnover through the air was recorded by Nigel Warrior. He said the team’s practices leading up to the game helped prepare them for the defensive effort that was on display which was predicated on returning to the basics. “Throughout practices, starting from last week, we practiced with more intensity, more communication, and it was just a different vibe out there. Guys actually wanted to play football, and Coach (Tracy) Rocker said, ‘When we were younger, we all had that little boy that just wanted to play football no matter what.’ We came out to play like those little boys that were in the front yard, back yard, actually wanting to go ball out, and touch the ball.”

READY TO STEP IN

When starting quarterback Brian Maurer suffered a concussion, the Vols handed the ball over to Jarrett Guarantano who had lost his starting job to the freshman in the Georgia game. Guarantano’s first pass went for minus-2 yards to Jauan Jennings but he quickly improved on his second throw as he uncorked a 41-yard strike to Ramel Keyton, the first time the freshman from Marietta, Georgia caught a pass. Guarantano only had one incompletion as he threw for 106 yards and a score.

“We didn’t ask him (Guarantano) to do a whole lot. He did a good job. He’s worked hard to be prepared when the moment comes,” Pruitt said of his junior quarterback. “That wasn’t because it was him; it was the way the game was going. He took an RPO out there, and it was good. He made a couple of third-down throws that were critical and had one with Jauan (Jennings) down there. I said it last time we were in here, he would help us win a game this year. He’ll help us win some more. That’s the thing about being the quarterback. When you have some success, you probably get too much praise. When you don’t, you probably get too much blame. That’s part of the position. He knows that and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s everybody that’s played that position for the last 100 years and for the next 100 years. He’s just got to go to work and get ready to play next week.”

BYRD TAKES FLIGHT

Prior to Saturday’s game against Mississippi State, Tyler Byrd had been relatively quiet this season as he had a 16-yard punt return against Chattanooga. All that changed against the Bulldogs as he led the Tennessee receiving corps with 56 yards which included a 39-yard touchdown that put the Vols up by two scores with just over a minute and a half to go in the game. Pruitt said he has been pleased with the way the senior wide receiver has gone about his business this season.

“Tyler has a really good attitude. He comes out there to practice, and he’s got a lot of energy every single day. He probably runs more yards around that field than anybody. He’s always been a physical guy, used a little bit in the run game. He’s worked hard to develop his hands, and he was open a couple of other times there when I thought we were going to get him the ball. It was a really good throw and catch, and a really good run after the catch.”

When asked about the scoring play that sealed the game for the Vols, Byrd said “I was just thankful for the two outside receivers, they were freshman and they made some good blocks for me and got me an opening, so just thankful for them and the offensive linemen.” While Byrd may not have posted big time numbers so far this season, he said he is part of a team that continues to work on the little things to get better. “People are trying to do the right thing, sometimes we know what we’re doing but don’t know how to get there exactly, and it’s those small details of how to get there to make that play every time, and I see people on both sides of the ball just trying to do those little details to put us in a position to hopefully win these games.

POWER OF THE PANTS?

Tennessee went with an all-orange look in Saturday’s game. It was the first time Tennessee wore orange pants since November 12, 2016 when they downed Kentucky 49-36. With the performance the UT defense had on Saturday, the “creamsicle look” may be one the Volunteers want to consider again later this season.

UP NEXT

The road gets tougher this week for Tennessee as they travel to take on top-ranked Alabama. The game against the Crimson Tide will be a late affair as it doesn’t kick off until 9 p.m. in Tuscaloosa.