The Tennessee Volunteers (2-4) were still searching for the first SEC win of the season against the Mississippi State Bulldogs (3-3) as both teams faced off on Saturday.
Thanks to a very good defensive performance and just enough offense, the Vols were able to find said win with a 20-10 victory.
Brian Cole II bobbled the opening kick return, which allowed the Vols’ special teams to fly down the field and take him down inside the MSU10. Tennessee was able to take advantage of the mistake and forced the Bulldogs to punt after a Darrell Taylor sack led to a three-and-out. A poor punt from Tucker Day gave the Vols the ball great field position at the MSU46.
Brian Maurer found Dominick Wood-Anderson for a 28-yard completion on the first play of the drive and the Vols were in business at the MSU18. But Maurer threw into double coverage on 3rd-and-6 and the Bulldogs picked it off in the end zone.
Matthew Butler was able to find his way into the Bulldogs’ backfield for Tennessee’s second sack of the game and it was enough to force Mississippi State into another three-and-out.
Maurer converted a 3rd-and-6 and a 3rd-and-7 with 16-yard completions to Tyler Byrd and Jordan Palmer, which helped set the Vols up in the red zone again. This time, instead of a turnover, the Vols found the end zone thanks to a Tim Jordan 15-yard touchdown run. Brent Cimaglia hit the extra point and the Vols had the first lead of the game, 7-0, with 4:56 left in the opening quarter.
The Bulldogs were able to get their first third-down conversion of the game on their next drive, but it came at a cost. Darryl Williams - the team’s best offensive lineman - had to exit the game with what appeared to be a hand injury. He would come back in a few plays later as the offense continued to drive down the field.
But Kenneth George picked off an overthrown Tommy Stevens pass and the Vols’ defense killed another Mississippi State drive. The Vols’ offense couldn’t get anything done, however, and had to punt the ball away after their first three-and-out of the game.
Joe Doyle was able to pin the Bulldogs inside their own 10-yard line, but Stephen Guidry bailed them out of the poor field position with a 16-yard catch right off the bat. Another Guidry reception - this time a 22-yarder - converted a 3rd-and-9 and really got the offense going.
Bryce Thompson halted the momentum with a sack on 2nd-and-8. The Bulldogs were on the UT29, but the sack drove them back to the UT33. Mississippi State couldn’t convert the following third-down attempt and were left with a 51-yard field goal attempt.
Jace Christmann’s attempt bounced off the crossbar and barely went in, cutting the Vols lead to 7-3 with 7:40 left in the first half.
The Vols really needed some points. Mississippi State’s offense was starting to find its groove and it was only a matter of time before it would find the end zone, too.
Chandler began the drive on the wrong foot, leaving the Vols with terrible starting position at their own 10. Maurer was able to get his team out of the bad spot, though, with a nice 23-yard scramble on 3rd-and-4. Jauan Jennings then carried the team into Bulldog territory with a 22-yard run off a semi-flea flicker.
Tennessee found itself inside the red zone for the third time during the game after Maurer took off for 13 yards on a read-option play, but the young quarterback tossed another interception into the end zone and the offense walked off the field with zero points inside the red zone for the second time on the day.
But Stevens tossed his second interception of the day on the following drive. Tennessee’s defense confused him and the end result was a throw into triple coverage that was picked off by Trevon Flowers. The Vols would take over with great field position at the MSU37.
It wasn’t Maurer who was on the field to start the next drive. Instead, it was Jarrett Guarantano. Maurer landed very awkwardly on his head after the aforementioned 13-yard read-option run and was in the injury tent during the drive.
Chandler tripped at the line of scrimmage on a 3rd-and-5 run and the Vols now had a 49-yard field goal attempt on their hands. Cimaglia was at least able to get some points off the opportunity, as he banged one through to put the Vols back up by seven, 10-3, at halftime.
Both teams officially made quarterback changes at halftime, but for different reasons. Stevens was replaced by Garrett Shrader due to ineffective play and Maurer was subbed out for Guarantano due to the injury he sustained in the second quarter.
Neither quarterback was able to get much done on the first drive of the half. The Vols stuck with six straight runs and Farrod Green dropped a pass that would’ve converted a 3rd-and-6.
Guarantano finally moved the offense downfield after he found Romel Keyton on the right sideline for a 41-yard reception that placed the Vols at the MSU13. They couldn’t get in the end zone, though, and had to settle for a 22-yard field goal attempt. Cimaglia nailed it and gave the Vols a 13-3 lead with 6:12 left in the third quarter.
It appeared as if Osirus Mitchell and the Bulldogs instantly responded with a big play of their own, but a replay challenge overturned what would’ve been about a 33-yard reception that would’ve put the Bulldogs in UT territory.
Nigel Warrior picked off Shrader a few plays later for the defense’s third interception of the game. The defense continued its solid play and was beginning to look like it may be able to stymie the Bulldog offense for a full four quarters.
The offense, on the other hand, didn’t look it was going to be able to do much. Guarantano was sacked on 2nd-and-10, which led to a three-and-out and no points after the turnover.
Fortunately for Tennessee, the defense continued to do it’s thing and stopped the Bulldogs again. The Vols led 13-3 and were facing a 2nd-and-7 as the third quarter came to a close.
Would they be able to finish the game and win their first SEC matchup of the season?
It was going to be up to the defense, because the offense simply wasn’t going to get much done without Maurer behind center. Tennessee was playing season-best ball on defense, but needed just a little bit more for the second win of 2019.
Well, the Vols’ defense certainly didn’t get the help it needed. On the first play of the Bulldogs’ drive, Shrader found Mitchell over the middle for a 21-yard completion, but Henry To’o To’o made things worse after he was ejected for targeting on a helmet-to-helmet hit on Shrader. In, all it was a 36-yard play that took the Bulldogs from their own 10 to their own 46.
The defense stiffened up after that play, forcing the Bulldogs into a 4th-and-4 at the UT48. Joe Moorehead decided to go for it and Shrader was able to break away from Taylor, resulting in a 12-yard scramble to the UT36.
Mississippi State found itself in the red zone for the first time all day a few plays later and made the most of it. Shrader hit a wide-open Derrick Thomas on the run for a 17-yard catch-and-run that gave the Bulldogs their first touchdown of the game and cut the Vols’ lead to 13-10 with 8:27 to go.
Shrader accounted for 79 of the 90 yards on that drive. The fate of this game would now be placed in the hands of a turtling Vols offense.
Tennessee approached a dire 3rd-and-6 on the next drive with a little more than 4:00 to go and was able to convert on a swing pass from Guarantano to Jordan. One more first down would all but seal the victory.
Tyler Byrd made sure they would get more than that. On 2nd-and-11, Guarantano found Byrd, who received some great downfield blocks and made some good moves of his own and he raced 39-yards down the sideline for Tennessee’s second touchdown of the day. Cimaglia hit the PAT and the Vols were up, 20-10, with just 2:35 left in the game.
Mississippi State was able to drive into the red zone, but consecutive sacks from the defensive line halted any chance of a touchdown, but the Bulldogs decided to go ahead and kick a 36-yard field goal attempt to cut the lead to one score.
Christmann’s kicked sailed wide left, and the hopes of a Bulldog comeback sailed away with it.
Tennessee would go on to win, 20-10 and have now improved to 2-4 on the season. The Vols will travel to Tuscaloosa to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide next week. Kickoff is currently set for 9PM EST.