STARKVILLE, Miss. - Its coach was in a different location.
The ending and the path to reach it was all too familiar for Tennessee.
With their third-year coach Derek Dooley coaching from the coaches' booth just four days after surgery repaired a fracture in his right hip, the Volunteers fell behind in the first half, rallied in the second half and came up short in the fourth quarter in a 41-31 loss to unbeaten and 19th-ranked Mississippi State at Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday night.
"It's hard when we keep coming up short," safety Byron Moore said. "We've just got to keep growing, stay together, stay locked, stay motivated and keep playing hard.
"They all hurt. They've all got their different feelings. I'm proud that we keep fighting in these second halves. It shows the maturity of the team. We've just got to find the one that's going to be our time."
Despite another close call, the program continues to wait for its first win against a ranked team under Dooley, a stretch that's now at 13 games.
"We found ourselves in a real hole," he said. "To their credit, the team came out and had a great third quarter, we stopped them four in a row on defense and had a chance to win. Now we've got to learn how to execute down the stretch.
"It's a tough loss. We've got to dust it off and move on. That's all you can do."
As they did at Georgia two Saturdays ago before their open date, the Vols found themselves with possession and a chance to take a fourth-quarter lead.
As they did in that eventual 51-44 loss, a turnover doomed Tennessee.
Johnthan Banks, the Bulldogs' all-conference cornerback, stripped Young and recovered the loose ball at the 30. After a big pass play and another short pass, Mississippi State's LaDarius Perkins, the SEC's second-leading rusher entering Saturday's game, scored from a yard out.
Tennessee answered with a quick scoring drive to cut its deficit to 34-31 with more five minutes left, but the Bulldogs answered the test.
After one first down, quarterback Tyler Russell connected twice with Chad Bumphis, the Bulldogs' top receiver, for first downs on gains of 10 and 23 yards.
The Bulldogs put the capper on the win when tight end Malcolm Johnson snagged Russell's throw from nine yards out and got one foot down in the back of the end zone.
What once looked like it would turn into another SEC shootout deep into the Mississippi night became a forgetful first half for the Vols, who again got dug themselves a hole on the road. The Bulldogs ran up 293 first-half yards and scored 27 points, their most since scoring 28 against Kentucky in 1994. Russell had time to throw and carved up Tennessee's secondary by spreading the ball around to different targets.
The Bulldogs finished with 450 yards, and Tennessee's defense has allowed 129 points and 1,565 yards of offense in three SEC games this season.
"We're not very good right now, because you are what your film is," Dooley said. "We don't get off blocks the way we need to up front. We don't get enough hats to the football. We bled to death.
"That's not the issue, because we're in the 3-4. There's growing pains, don't get me wrong. But we can be playing better."
After an impressive and authoritative opening drive in which the Vols were balanced and efficient, Tennessee ran just 10 plays. Two Vols drives ended after three plays, both times when Tennessee threw deep on third downs with just four and two yards to pick up for a first down. The Vols' last-ditch drive ended after one play, Tyler Bray's deep interception to Mississippi State safety Corey Broomfield.
Though receiver Cordarrelle Patterson kept his team within shouting distance with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown -- the Vols' first since Bret Smith ran an onside kick back at South Carolina in 2004 -- Tennessee was woeful on special teams.
Matt Darr's punt was caught up in the wind, died in the air and kicked back, only traveling 14 yards. Mississippi State's Taveze Calhoun ran down a pooch kick to give the Bulldogs possession at Tennessee's 33. Those plays lead to 14 Mississippi State points.
Michael Palardy booted one kickoff out of bounds and had a 54-yard rugby-style punt nullified by the Vols' second illegal-formation penalty of the first half, though the 30-yard swing in field position ended when Mississippi State's Devon Bell pushed a 38-yard field-goal try wide right.
All told, Tennessee was fortunate to be down just 27-14 at halftime. Mississippi State ran 49 plays to the Vols' 20 and held the more than 15 minutes longer. The Bulldogs averaged nearly six yards per play.
The third quarter, though, was a flip of the script.
Tennessee held the ball for more than 11 minutes and ran 28 plays as it founds its rhythm with the up-tempo offense. Its maligned defense held Mississippi State to just 10 yards and no first downs, forcing punts after three plays twice. The Vols scored 10 points on two long drives.
With tailbacks Rajion Neal (ankle) and Marlin Lane (thigh) ailing, the Vols went to Devrin Young and freshman Quenshaun Watson and mixed in freshman receiver Alton "Pig" Howard in a wildcat package that picked up 30 yards on four plays. Young picked up 36 tough yards on eight totes. Bray's lofted ball to Patterson brought Tennessee to within 27-24 entering the fourth quarter.
Once again, that's where the Vols' hopes of their first win against a ranked team under Dooley ended in disappointment.
"I actually liked how it was going, because we were gritting our way into a win," Dooley said. "That's what it looked like. This is going to be a [heck] of a win. We just didn't finish it off.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...