KNOXVILLE — In an age of high-powered offense, it’s rare to see an old-fashioned defensive slobber-knocker in the Southeastern Conference, but that is what happened Saturday afternoon at Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee turned in one of the best defensive efforts in modern memory as they recorded seven sacks and three interceptions in a 20-10 win over Mississippi State. With the victory, the Volunteers move to 2-4 overall and pick up their first conference win. It’s the first time UT has won back-to-back games over a team from the Western division since 2007-2008. Mississippi State falls to 3-3, 1-2.
The Bulldogs were held to only 121 rushing yards and standout runner Kylin Hill had just 13 yards in the game. No one on the MSU team finished with over 100 yards in either rushing or passing as Tennessee’s defense was suffocating. On offense, quarterback Brian Maurer left the game with a concussion and was replaced by Jarrett Guarantano who went 6-for-7 for 106 yards and a touchdown, a score that came late in the fourth quarter and gave the Volunteers the cushion they needed. Ty Chandler rushed for 63 yards and Tyler Byrd led the receiving corps with 56 yards on three receptions.
“I thought our guys fought really hard, and they have been busting their tails all fall camp trying to play like we did today,” Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt said after the win. “I’m sure we didn’t play perfect, but we found a way to win. That is something we talked about all week. We wanted to play cleaner football and play more physical and, I think our guys did that.
“Hill only had 13 yards, and he is one of the better backs in this league and I think our guys did a really nice job gang-tackling him and our defensive staff did an phenominal job putting a plan together and our guys went and executed it,” Pruitt said of his team’s defense output. “Our guys played gaps sound, struck blockers and changed the line of scrimmage a little bit. We wrapped up on the gang tackles and made some plays in space. Going into the game, we felt like we needed to make their quarterbacks beat us and not let (Hill) beat us, and I think our kids did a nice job of executing the game plan.”
The Tennessee defense forced a three-and-out on Mississippi State’s first possession, and Maurer zipped an 18-yard pass to Dominick Woods-Anderson on the first offensive play for UT. It appeared the Volunteers were headed toward a score, but Maurer’s pass was intercepted in the endzone by Cam Dantzler to end the threat.
Tennessee forced another punt by the Bulldogs and when they got the ball, went right to work on a scoring drive.
Starting at their own 40 yard line, Maurer hit Byrd for a 16-yard pickup. Later in the drive, the Tennessee quarterback hit Josh Palmer for a 16-yard gain to the MSU 22. Tim Jordan took over from there with a seven-yard rush and then a 15-yard scoring scamper. Brent Cimaglia’s point-after put Tennessee up 7-0.
An interception ended Mississippi State’s drive on their third possession of the game as Kenneth George stepped in front of Stevens’ pass at the UT 10 and took it 24 yards the other way. The Vols couldn’t do anything with it, however, and Joe Doyle boomed a 52-yard punt. The fourth drive proved to be the charm for MSU as the Bulldogs got on the board on Jace Christmann’s 51-yard field goal that hit the lower crossbar and flipped over to make it 7-3.
Tennessee looked to be driving for a score as they had huge plays to drive into the red zone. Maurer picked up 23 yards on a run and was followed by Jennings’ 22-yard run on what appeared to be a busted trick play. Maurer took the Vols all the way to the MSU 18 with a 15-yard keeper but for the second time in the contest, he threw an interception in the endzone to thwart the drive.
The defense came up big again for UT as Trevon Flowers picked off Stevens at the 49 and returned it 14 yards to set up the Vols in good position again with less than a minute to go in the first half. On the final play of the second quarter, Cimaglia booted through a 49-yard field goal to give Tennessee a 10-3 lead at the break.
Both teams went with different quarterbacks to start the second half, but it wasn’t necessarily by choice for Tennessee. Maurer suffered a concussion late in the first half and was replaced by Guarantano. MSU had seen enough of Stevens in the first half and benched him in favor of freshman Garrett Shrader. Things didn’t get much better for MSU, as he only had 79 yards through the air and 62 on the ground.
After Shrader failed to get anything going, Guarantano dazzled with a 41-yard pass to freshman Ramel Keyton down to the Mississippi State 13 yard-line.
The drive stalled, however, and Cimaglia was trotted on to attempt a 22-yarder which he nailed to give Tennessee a 13-3 lead. That was the way the third quarter ended as the Vols held Mississippi State to only 28 yards of total offense in the 12-minute span and Nigel Warrior recorded Tennessee’s third interception of the day.
Mississippi State started to make things interesting midway through the fourth quarter as they marched 90 yards to score and make it a one-possession game.
After Doyle pinned the Bulldogs deep in their own territory, Shrader hit Osirus Mitchell for a 21-yard pick up and then Henry To’o To’o was flagged and ejected from the game for a shot to Shrader’s head.
Facing a third-and-15, Sharder gained 11 yards on a keeper and then picked up the first on another run, this time for 12 yards. The drive ended when Shrader found Deddrick Thomas for a 17-yard touchdown to make it 13-10.
Tennessee put together a long drive of their own, driving 91 yards and gobbling up just under six minutes off the clock. Chandler got the Vols out of the shadow of their own endzone with a 15-yard run and then Jordan was fed the ball four straight times and he picked up 23 yards to get into MSU territory.
UT dialed up the perfect play call as Guarantano hit Byrd on the left side, and he made a juke move to fake out a Bulldogs defender, got to the sidelines and it was off to the races for a 39-yard touchdown. Cimaglia booted through the PAT to make it 20-10.
The visitors from Starkville got the ball once more with two and half minutes remaining, but down two scores. Shrader took them towards the Tennessee endzone with runs of 14 yards twice, 13 yards and a 15-yard pass to Mitchell.
Facing a fourth-and-15 at the UT 18 after Tennessee’s defense made several big plays, the Bulldogs elected to try the field goal with 16 seconds left. Christmann, who was successful from over 50 on an earlier kick, went wide left from 36 yards. Tennessee got the ball at the 20 and went into the victory formation for the 20-10 triumph.
Tennessee travels to top-ranked Alabama next Saturday night for a late-night tilt with the Crimson Tide. Kickoff is set for 9 p.m.