By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
Two years ago it would’ve been hard to imagine Jeremy Pruitt being in a must-win situation, but there he was Saturday in Knoxville with his Vols off to a 1-4 start and 7-point underdogs to visiting Mississippi State with the annual rivalry game against Alabama looming.
Tennessee’s defensive-minded coach got a defensive win at Neyland Stadium on Saturday with a 20-10 victory over the Bulldogs.
It didn’t happen according to script. The Vols only completed ten passes using two quarterbacks, unheralded receiver Tyler Byrd led Tennessee with three receptions for 56 yards and a game-sealing touchdown and the Vols biggest offensive play came on a 41-yard completion by backup quarterback Jarrett Guarantano to freshman Ramel Keyton.
Most remarkably, Tennessee held Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill, the SEC’s leading rusher to just 13 yards on 11 carries. That’s less than 1.2 yards per attempt. His longest gain of the afternoon was four yards.
Tennessee also didn’t let missed opportunities affect the outcome. Brian Maurer was intercepted twice in the end zone that took points off the board for the Vols, but the defense responded by forcing a three and out after the first pick and intercepted Tommy Stevens four plays after the second.
In college football each win changes the perspective of a team’s season. 2-4 looks significantly better than 1-5 for a team that’s trying to simply get back into postseason play. The win today doesn’t make it any less difficult for Tennessee to get four more wins, but continued improvement from the Vols like they had today will keep that conversation going in Knoxville.
Don’t expect a win at Alabama next Saturday, but here are some observations to look into as Tennessee begins the second half of its schedule next week.
This is the defense Jeremy Pruitt wanted to bring to Tennessee
Of Mississippi State’s ten drives on Saturday, three ended in a three and out and three more ended with an interception. The Bulldogs were 5-12 on third downs and were held to just 267 yards of total offense. The Bulldogs also didn’t take a snap inside the red zone until the fourth quarter.
Tennessee’s defense got off the field early and took the ball away like the ball-hawking defense Pruitt envisioned when he first took the job 22 months ago. The Vols picked off Stevens twice in the first half and nabbed a third interception off of Garrett Shrader in the third quarter.
Throughout the game the defensive line was getting a push up front. Mississippi State averaged a mere 3.3 yards per carry on the ground and Tennessee’s front was a big reason why. The Bulldogs offensive line found itself a yard behind the line of scrimmage consistently on run plays.
To top it off, the Vols used a mix of blitz packages to record seven sacks on the day. Credit to Darrell Taylor for chipping in with two of those after a disappointing start to the season. Kivon Bennett and Darrel Middleton sacked Shrader on back-to-back plays late in the fourth quarter and Bryce Thompson was sent in from the corner spot for another sack in the first half.
Seven sacks, three interceptions, ten points. That’s the result of Pruitt’s defense coming to full fruition.
When the Vols needed offense, Jim Chaney got creative
…While still being conservative. And Tennessee moved the ball consistently and when it needed to the most.
After Stevens’ second interception late in the first half gave the Vols the football with a minute to go at Mississippi State’s 37, Tennessee ran three plays with Guarantano at quarterback for five yards and settled for a Brent Cimaglia field goal to take a 10-3 lead into the break.
To begin the second half, Tennessee ran six straight times and ended up punting the ball away. On its next possession Tennessee opened up the passing game and Guarantano found Keyton for the big completion to put the Vols in the red zone again, but Tennessee kept the ball on the ground for the next three plays and settled for a short kick from Cimaglia to push the lead to ten.
Tennessee appeared content to take points, not make big mistakes on offense and ride the defense to a low-scoring win.
And then Mississippi State made it interesting.
With the ball at their own ten, the Bulldogs drove 90 yards in 8 plays to pull within three with 8:27 left in the fourth quarter. Tennessee couldn’t settle for a punt in that situation. The Vols needed to take the game out of Mississippi State’s hands.
A holding call on the ensuing kickoff put Tennessee at its own nine. Chaney spread the field and utilized Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan to move the ball away from Tennessee’s end zone. After six straight runs the Vols were facing third down and six at Mississippi State’s 47. Guarantano threw a simple swing pass to Jordan for a gain of nine and a first down. Two plays later Guarantano found Byrd on a screen for a 39-yard touchdown that all but ended the game.
Tennessee has lost games in the past by not being creative enough when leading late and with the football. Jim Chaney deserves credit for this play call.
Creativity doesn’t always equal aggression. This is a safe pass in a running situation. It leads to a game-sealing touchdown. pic.twitter.com/rJzjrotDDd
— Joel Silverberg (@JoelSilverberg) October 12, 2019
It’s a creative call that’s still conservative. Byrd is lined up on the inside off the line of scrimmage away from the defense. The pass is safe as long as Guarantano gets it out quickly, which he does. Byrd is able to get to the edge after a couple of blocks to his left. Tennessee could’ve run two dive plays and either kicked a field goal or tried to pin the Bulldogs deep, but instead the touchdown seals the game. It takes the pressure off the defense entirely.
Creativity doesn’t always equal aggression. After the Bulldogs finally found the end zone midway through the fourth quarter. Chaney needed to move the football late in the game to avoid giving it back to Shrader and the Mississippi State offense with Tennessee having only a three-point lead. The defense was the story on Saturday for Tennessee, but that touchdown pass was the exclamation point.
Special Teams got back on track for Tennessee
Joe Doyle averaged over 46 yards per punt and pinned Mississippi State deep twice. Marquez Callaway made a 13-yard return on a 56-yard punt to get the Vols solid field position en route to Tennessee’s first touchdown. Brent Cimaglia hit both of his field goals, including a 49-yarder at the end of the first half. The special teams unit continues to help the Vols in a big way.
The Vols played the field position game for most of the afternoon. When the defense is playing as well as it is, field position is an added bonus. The Vols had that bonus the entire afternoon. Tennessee’s average starting field position was its own 34. Mississippi State’s was its own 19.
The narrative for Tennessee’s season has changed dramatically
The Vols are 2-4 with six games to play. Four wins are needed for a bowl game appearance, but Tennessee has zero room for error. An upset win in Tuscaloosa might be a lot to ask for, but after Tennessee faces Alabama there are certainly four winnable games on the schedule.
South Carolina got a big win over Georgia on Saturday, but the Gamecocks are still flawed and suffered several injuries during that win in Athens. Tennessee opens November at home against UAB and follows that up against Kentucky, which has looked unimpressive since nearly stunning Florida in September.
The final two games are what doomed Tennessee’s bowl hopes a season ago. The Vols visit Missouri and host Vanderbilt to close out the regular season. The Tigers offense could be a lot to handle for Tennessee, but Missouri is far from invincible. Vanderbilt has looked dreadful on offense and got hammered by UNLV 34-10 on Saturday in Nashville.
I don’t know if I’d pick Tennessee to reach a bowl based on one win. The margin of error is still incredibly thin, but there’s more optimism now than there was two weeks ago.
Tennessee visits No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa for a 9 P.M. kickoff. The Vols have lost 12 straight to the Crimson Tide, who are coming off a 47-28 win over Texas A&M.