KNOXVILLE — For Tennessee's offensive linemen, the last scoring drive of the Volunteers' 20-10 win over Mississippi State was a dream.
With the Vols clinging to a three-point lead Saturday afternoon at Neyland Stadium and needing to go 91 yards for a touchdown, coaches put the game on the backs of an offensive line widely considered the team's weakest link a year ago.
Running backs Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan combined for 43 rushing yards on seven carries on the drive — including a gain of 15 yards by Chandler and a gain of 12 by Jordan — and Jordan also caught a 9-yard pass from Jarrett Guarantano, who capped the drive with a 39-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Byrd.
And it all happened behind an offensive line rated one of the worst in the country a year ago.
Coaches made it a point to address that in recruiting, bringing in a pair of highly touted freshmen in tackles Wanya Morris (6-foot-4, 313 pounds) and Darnell Wright (6-6, 330), and the return of junior Trey Smith (6-6, 325) from recurring blood clots provided a huge boost. Offensive line coach Will Friend entered his second season in Knoxville with a new coordinator, Jim Chaney, whose experience coaching offensive linemen was expected to help repair the unit.
The progress has been noticeable. When Guarantano was benched two games ago in favor of freshman Brian Maurer, the offense started to show signs of improvement. When Maurer sustained a concussion late in the first half Saturday, the Vols went to a ground-and-pound attack with Guarantano at the helm.
And they stuck with it, even when they weren't necessarily moving the ball that well. Seven fourth-quarter runs had netted minus-4 yards before the final scoring drive, but perseverance paid off with those 43 key rushing yards that set up Jordan's catch to pick up a first down. Two plays later, Guarantano threw a short pass to Byrd, who spun to the outside and sprinted downfield for the game-clinching score.
The nine-play possession ate up 5 minutes, 44 seconds of game clock.
"That was dope," Smith said. "It's a great feeling to be able to handle somebody up front. You have to give credit out to them (Mississippi State), though. They played a hell of a game, and it's always a great feeling when you can impose your will on somebody."
The Vols finished with 190 yards on the ground, their second-most against a Southeastern Conference opponent in Jeremy Pruitt's two seasons as coach. The only time they had more — a 215-yard performance against Kentucky last November — also resulted in a win.
"We knew coming in we needed to run the ball and run it well, and we did a pretty good job," Morris said, "but we can always improve at something, and I feel we are going to work on it more this week and just get better at running the ball."
With Tennessee's defense doing its part in shutting down the Bulldogs, the Vols had opportunities to really lean on their offense and especially their running game. The performance was far from a thing of beauty, but after six consecutive losses against Football Bowl Subdivision competition — four against SEC teams — it was a step in the right direction.
If the Vols' rushing offense continues to improve, it could wind up being a big step. Saturday's 9 p.m. EDT game at No. 1 Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC), which will be televised by ESPN, will start the second half of the schedule for Tennessee (2-4, 1-2) as it tries to earn a bowl bid for the first time since the 2016 season.
Guarantano's first series against Mississippi State started with the Vols leading 7-3 and 59 seconds left in the second quarter after Tennessee's Trevon Flowers intercepted Tommy Stevens and returned the ball 14 yards to the Bulldogs' 37. The Vols kept the ball on the ground for three straight plays before settling for a 49-yard field goal by Brent Cimaglia.
"You have to sometimes call a game based off the scoreboard and how the team is playing," Pruitt said. "Our defense was playing really well. Right before the half there, we were pretty conservative. We knew what the (yard) line to gain was for our kicker and we got it. Brent kicked it through there, so it was a big thing right before the half.
"But we stayed with the same game plan as the game went. Our defense was playing pretty good, we didn't want to make a mistake, so that's kind of the way we called the game there. Can we win a bunch of games like that? Probably not. But that's the way we needed to play to win this game, so I thought our coaches did a nice job of doing that."