KNOXVILLE — Tennessee played two quarterbacks Saturday against Mississippi State, doing so out of necessity rather than by choice as former starter Jarrett Guarantano took over for injured freshman Brian Maurer.
The Volunteers' two running backs, five offensive linemen and 11 defenders were far more impressive.
Tennessee dominated on defense and Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan combined for 122 of the team's 190 rushing yards in a 20-10 win in front of 85,462 at Neyland Stadium.
The Vols (2-4, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) ended a six-game losing streak against Football Bowl Subdivision competition that dated to last year. Tennessee visits top-ranked Alabama (6-0, 3-0) next Saturday for a 9 p.m. EDT kickoff.
Against the Bulldogs (3-3, 1-2), the Vols forced three turnovers and were credited with seven sacks, the most in Jeremy Pruitt's two years as coach. Mississippi State's offense was limited to a season-low 267 yards.
"I think we were just out there playing fast," said Tennessee senior linebacker Darrell Taylor, who had two sacks. "We were getting off the rock. It's something that we've been preaching all week. I think the inside guys did a hell of a job pushing the pocket and making the quarterback step back. We were coming around the edge really fast and making plays."
Senior linebacker Daniel Bituli led the Vols with seven tackles, and defensive linemen Matthew Butler, Darel Middleton, and Aubrey Solomon, linebacker Kivon Bennett and cornerback Bryce Thompson each had a sack. Safeties Trevon Flowers and Nigel Warrior and cornerback Kenneth George Jr. all picked off a pass.
Maurer was 4-for-7 passing for 61 yards and threw two interceptions — both in the red zone — in his second start. He also rushed for 41 yards before being ruled out after a series that included a 13-yard run on which he was upended and awkwardly landed on his head. That possession ended when Brian Cole II intercepted Maurer in the end zone with 2:19 to play in the first half.
After the game, Pruitt said Maurer had sustained a concussion.
Guarantano, a redshirt junior who started every game last year and the first four this season, helped guide the Vols to a pair of field goals by Brent Cimaglia — a 49-yarder just before halftime and a 22-yarder with 6:12 left in the third quarter.
Tennessee had shifted to a more run-heavy offense, leaning on ball control and defense, but Guarantano was an efficient 6-of-7 passing for 106 yards, including an impressive 41-yard connection with Ramel Keyton. He also threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Byrd, who spun away from a tackler and sprinted to the end zone to cap a nine-play, 91-yard drive and make it 20-10 with 2:35 to go.
Byrd led Tennessee receivers with 56 yards on three catches.
On the game's first drive, the Vols moved the ball to the Bulldogs' 12-yard line before Maurer threw into double coverage in the end zone and was picked off. He had a couple of big third-down completions to Byrd and Josh Palmer for first downs on the next drive, which ended in Jordan's first touchdown of the season, a 15-yard run.
The Bulldogs cut the lead to 7-3 on Jace Christmann's 51-yard field goal — the ball hit the crossbar and bounced over — midway through the second quarter, but the Vols drove right back downfield before Maurer was picked off again, this time trying to throw across his body. The Vols got the ball back after Flowers' interception — a play on which he broke his leg, Pruitt said afterward — and turned it into three points.
Tennessee's only victory this season before Saturday was against Football Championship Subdivision competition, a 45-0 win against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Sept. 14. Since beating Kentucky last Nov. 10, the Vols had lost to Missouri, Vanderbilt, Georgia State, BYU, Florida and Georgia.
"That was a really good team win against a good football team," Pruitt said. "We had some things that didn't go our way. We had a couple of guys that got banged up and had to leave the game. We turned the ball over some there in the first half in the red area, which made the game a lot closer there toward the end. If you get six points there, that's a totally different deal. We've got to be able to take care of the football.
"But I thought our guys fought really hard. They've been busting their tails all fall camp trying to play like we did today. And I'm sure we didn't play perfect, but we found a way to win. That's one of the things we talked about all week, playing cleaner football, playing more physical and playing for longer. And I think our guys did that."
Freshman linebacker Henry To'o To'o, who had two tackles against the Bulldogs and is second on the team this season with 34 stops, was ejected in the fourth quarter for targeting and must miss the first half at Alabama.
"Henry's got to lower his area that he's going to hit the gut at," Pruitt said. "They're going to call that targeting every time. He had his eyes up, his chest up. He did not hit him with the crown of the head, but they're going to protect quarterbacks who are defenseless from here up. He knew it when he came over there. He said, 'I should have hit him more in here.'"
TENNESSEE 20, MISSISSIPPI STATE 10
Staff writer Gene Henley breaks down the game in bits and pieces.
The Tennessee defense limited Mississippi State to a season-low 267 yards of offense and had seven sacks — a high in the Jeremy Pruitt era — and three interceptions. The much-maligned defensive line totaled three sacks, with Matthew Butler, Darel Middleton and Aubrey Solomon being credited with one each.
Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill — the SEC's leading rusher — came into the game averaging 5.5 yards per carry for the season. He finished with 13 yards on 11 carries, and his longest run of the day was for 4 yards.
The game felt as though it may swing in the Bulldogs' direction when Garrett Shrader passed to Deddrick Thomas for a 17-yard touchdown that cut the Tennessee lead to 13-10. The Vols responded with a nine-play, 91-yard drive that took 5:44 off the clock and ended in a score when Tyler Byrd took a Jarrett Guarantano pass, spun away from a defender and sprinted 39 yards.
The Guarantano-Byrd connection. To that point in the drive, the Vols appeared to be milking the clock and attempting to get in position to kick a field goal, but that quickly changed on the catch-and-run, which put the game away and was only the third career touchdown for the senior receiver.
WHAT IT MEANS
Pruitt and the Vols needed this win. And the way it happened — running the ball, dominating on defense — is encouraging, as those were two areas where the Vols have struggled all year. Any inkling of a positive is a good thing going into this week's game at top-ranked Alabama, and Tennessee can at least carry some level of confidence into Tuscaloosa.