5 Observations: Vols 20, Mississippi State 10

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    Photo by Jake Nichols/RTI

    It definitely wasn’t pretty, but at this point, Vol fans aren’t going to complain after a win no matter how ugly it was.

    Tennessee led for the entire game on Saturday, but the deficit was never more than two scores. But the Vols (2-4, 1-2 SEC) found a way to defeat Mississippi State (3-3, 1-2 SEC) in Knoxville, pulling out a gutsy 20-10 victory.

    True freshman Brian Maurer got the start at quarterback for the Vols, and even though he made some good throws and created some big plays through the air and on the ground, he also kept points off the board.

    Twice Maurer threw a bad pass into the end zone that got intercepted, and twice Tennessee went from at least attempting a field goal to coming away with no points.

    Luckily for Maurer, the Vols’ defense was a force to be reckoned with on Saturday, and they kept the Vols from falling behind. Time and time again, the defense gave the offense the ball back on a solid stand or by forcing a turnover.

    Eventually, the offense cashed in.

    Maurer took a major hit on a long run in the second quarter, stayed in briefly, but exited and was replaced by Jarrett Guarantano. The redshirt senior stayed in the rest of the game after Maurer was diagnosed with a concussion.

    As reckless as Maurer was with the ball, Guarantano proved to be quite the opposite.

    Guarantano only had one incompletion on seven pass attempts, and he managed the offense well enough to score 10 more points and pull out the victory.

    Here are our five biggest takeaways from the Vols’ first SEC win of the season.

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    Conservative Play Calling

    One thing that really stood out from Tennessee’s win was the Vols’ run-heavy play calling by Jim Chaney. At points, it looked like the wrong move or came off as Chaney and the offense not trusting Jarrett Guarantano. But in the end, it proved (for the most part) to be the right call.

    When Guarantano replaced Maurer at the end of the first half and to start the second half, the Vols didn’t throw the ball for nine-straight plays. It wasn’t until Tennessee’s second possession of the second half that Guarantano attempted a pass, and it went for a loss of two yards. Guarantano would redeem himself on his next attempted pass, connecting with Ramel Keyton for a 41-yard bomb.

    On the day, the Vols called just 14 pass plays. Maurer threw the ball seven times in the first half, and Guarantano threw the ball seven times in the second half. Both combined to go 10-of-14 for 167 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions.

    On the other hand, Tennessee ran the ball a whopping 44 times and gained 190 yards on those runs. Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan got a heavy workload, with Jordan getting 19 carries for 59 yards and Chandler picking up 63 yards on 16 carries. Jordan also got a touchdown run.

    Chaney seemed determined not to let the passing game take too many risks after Maurer’s early interceptions, and the Vols’ defense held up their end of the bargain. The offense did just enough to keep State’s offense off the field, and in the end, UT picked up enough chunks of yardage and busted out a big play for the decisive score.

    Tennessee kept the ball away from MSU’s offense and controlled the clock. The Vols won the time of possession, holding the ball 33 minutes compared to 27 minutes by Mississippi State. Both teams ran 58 total plays on offense.

    Defense Came to Play

    This game will go down as one of the best defensive performances of the early Jeremy Pruitt era.

    The Vols not only totaled seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss in the game, but they held the SEC’s leading rusher, Kylin Hill, to easily his worst day of his career. Hill entered Saturday’s game with 596 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 108 carries in five games. Tennessee suffocated him, only giving up 13 yards on 11 carries.

    On the whole, Tennessee held Mississippi State to 267 yards total, including just 121 yards on the ground on 37 carries (3.3 yards a carry). The Bulldogs only averaged 4.6 yards per play on offense, and the Vols forced three turnovers on the afternoon.

    Time and time again, Tennessee would stop a Mississippi State drive as it picked up momentum, forced a turnover, or held the Bulldogs to a three-and-out.

    Darrell Taylor looked more like he did during the Georgia and Kentucky games last year, totaling five tackles, two sacks, and two tackles for loss. Matthew Butler, Darel Middelton, Kivon Bennett, Aubrey Solomon, and Bryce Thompson all totaled sacks as well.

    After allowing Mississippi State to convert three of their six third downs in the first half, UT held the Bulldogs to just 2-of-6 on third downs in the second half.

    The defense was the biggest reason Tennessee won on Saturday. Mississippi State isn’t a great team, but their offense is capable of making big plays. The Vols didn’t allow that on Saturday.

    Unlikely Heroes

    If I told you before Saturday’s game that Jarrett Guarantano and Tyler Byrd would make a pivotal play in the fourth quarter against Mississippi State, you would’ve called me crazy. But that’s exactly what happened.

    Guarantano had to come in and play after Maurer suffered a concussion, and he made some good throws in his limited action. His final throw came late in the fourth quarter on the Vols’ decisive drive. The redshirt junior connected with Tyler Byrd, a senior receiver who has played sparingly over the last two seasons, and Byrd ran it in for a 39-yard score, giving Tennessee the 20-10 lead that would end up being the final score.

    That catch marked Byrd’s third reception of the day, which almost surpassed his total over the last two seasons combined. Byrd had caught four passes for 47 yards and two touchdowns in 2017 and 2018 combined. On Saturday, he totaled three receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown.

    At quarterback, Guarantano was efficient and completed all but one of his passes. He finished his day 6-of-7 for 106 yards and a touchdown.

    Byrd and Guarantano weren’t being talked about hardly at all heading into Saturday’s contest. But the two made some huge plays, including the game-sealing touchdown.

    Pruitt Loves the SEC West

    Aside from Alabama, Jeremy Pruitt seems to like facing SEC West opponents at Tennessee.

    The Vols ended a long losing streak to SEC West teams last year with an upset 30-24 victory over Auburn on the road. That win marked UT’s first win over a cross-divisional opponent since the Derek Dooley era.

    On Saturday, the Vols, again, defeated an SEC West team.

    Tennessee’s win over Mississippi State marks the first time since 2007 and 2008 that the Vols have beaten an SEC West opponent in back-to-back seasons. Back then, UT picked up a 33-21 win over Mississippi State and a 34-13 victory over Arkansas in 2007 then defeated Mississippi State again in 2008 by a score of 34-3.

    Ending Some Streaks

    The Vols’ victory over Mississippi State ended some long streaks for Tennessee.

    The win gave Tennessee their first victory over an FBS school in 336 days. The last time UT beat an FBS team came in their 24-7 victory over Kentucky last season in Neyland Stadium. That was also the Vols’ last SEC win. Tennessee had lost four-straight conference games before Saturday’s win, and they had lost those four games by an average of 29.5 points.

    Tennessee’s win ended a four-game losing streak to FBS opponents at home for the Vols that dated back to last season as well. After beating Kentucky, the Vols lost to Missouri 50-17 at home the next week and dropped games against Georgia State, BYU, and Georgia at home this season.