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Unlikely heroes cap Tennessee’s win over Mississippi State

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NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee was looking for its first SEC win of the season on Saturday against Mississippi State. Through three quarters, the Vols had certainly played well enough to earn that victory. But turnovers in the redzone, plus an injury to Brian Maurer changed the game for Tennessee.

You could make a pretty convincing case that Tennessee should have been up 24-3 at the halftime break. Freshman quarterback Brian Maurer moved the ball well early on, but made two devastating decisions in the redzone to keep the Bulldogs breathing.

The defense? They were lights out today. Derrick Ansley’s group dominated up front and forced three interceptions while racking up seven sacks during the game.

Even after all of that, Tennessee found themselves needing points in the fourth quarter, clinging to a 13-10 lead. After a few successful runs, the Volunteers were suddenly in position to close this one out.

That’s just what Jarrett Guarantano and Tyler Byrd did. Would you believe that sentence if I told you that on Friday?

Guarantano, playing for an injured Maurer, was 5-6 for 106 yards and a score.

“We didn’t ask him to do a whole lot,” Jeremy Pruitt said of Guarantano after the game. “He’s done a nice job, he’s worked hard to be prepared when the moment comes. And we didn’t ask him to do a whole lot today. It’s not because it was him, it’s because of the way the game was going.”

Guarantano entered the game with a lead in a game where the defense was dominating the game. He didn’t have to do a lot today, but he made the key plays when it mattered the most. His conversion on third down to Tim Jordan kept that final drive alive, then the throw to Tyler Byrd put the game on ice.

For Byrd, it was a rare offensive opportunity. The speedy receiver was once viewed as an important offensive piece as a freshman, it just never really happened for him. He bounced to the defensive side of the ball when Pruitt arrived, then back to offense shortly after.

His contributions have come mainly on special teams, but he got his chance to show that big speed once again as a senior, putting Mississippi State away late.

“Tyler, he has a really good attitude, he comes to practice with energy every single day,” Pruitt said. “He probably runs more yardage around that field than anybody. He was open a couple other times that I thought we were going to get him the ball. But it was a really nice throw and catch and really good run after the catch.”

Jeremy Pruitt said last week that Guarantano’s time would come and he would help Tennessee win a game later this year. Just a week later, that statement came true.

Tennessee needed that. Jarrett Guarantano needed that. Even with Alabama looming next, the Vols stopped the bleeding today.