When Garrett Shrader found Deddrick Thomas in the endzone to pull Mississippi State within three, 13-10 in the fourth quarter, the scene was beginning to look all-too familiar.
Tennessee saw a late lead slip away in a loss to BYU earlier this season because they couldn’t put the game away when they needed to.
The scene set up for it to happen again, but strong defense and a couple of forgotten faces helped the Vols to a 20-10 win over the Bulldogs at Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
Here are the takeaways:
Defense wins the day
The Tennessee defense put together their best performance of the season, holding the SEC’s leading rusher, Kylin Hill to just 13 total yards on the ground.
The defense also accounted for seven total sacks and eight tackles for loss.
Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt said following the game that stopping the run and getting pressure on the quarterback were part of the Vols plans defensively.
“I think our (defense) played gap-sound,’’ Pruitt said. “We stuck with our blockers, changed the line of scrimmage a little bit, wrapped up, tackled and made some plays in space. Going into the game we felt like we needed to make their quarterbacks beat us. I think our kids did a good job executing the gameplan.”
Mississippi State’s offense only managed 267 yards of total offense as the Bulldogs’ two quarterbacks, Garrett Shrader and Tommy Stevens threw for less than 80 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
“When you do what you’re supposed to do, most of the time you’re usually in the vicinity of who you’re supposed to be guarding,” Pruitt said. “I think early in the game we affected the quarterback, got some pressures. Our secondary guys were in the right spots.”
Maurer out, Guarantano reverses role
Early in the season, Pruitt said that redshirt junior Jarrett Guarantano would be needed to help Tennessee win games.
The embattled quarterback was benched in place of true freshman Brian Maurer heading into the Georgia game.
Maurer was efficient moving the ball early for Tennessee, but threw two interceptions deep in the redzone.
Just before halftime, Maurer was putting together what looked like a big drive for the Vols, but was upended and came down on his head on a first down run. Two plays later he was pulled from the game. Pruitt later confirmed that he suffered a concussion.
The coaching staff turned to Guarantano for the remainder of the game.
“We ran the same stuff, Pruitt said. “You have to sometimes call a game based on the scoreboard. Our defense was playing really well. We stayed with the same gameplan.”
While Guarantano didn’t have to do too much, he made some important throws to keep scoring drives alive for Tennessee, including the 39-yard touchdown to Byrd to seal the game.
“We didn’t ask (Guarantano) to do too much,” Pruitt said. “He’s done a good job, he’s worked hard to be prepared when the moment comes. He made a couple of third down throws that were critical. That’s why I said it last week, he would help us win a game this year.”
Byrd puts game away
Ask anyone within the Tennessee program and they will tell you that Tyler Byrd puts in as much work as anybody behind the scenes. But for the senior has struggled to get playing time at wide receiver.
Against Mississippi State, he took full advantage of the opportunity, leading the team in receiving with three catches for 56 yards and a touchdown.
The touchdown came with 2:35 left in regulation and the Vols clinging to a 13-10 lead.
A 9-play, 91 yard drive that took up nearly six minutes was capped off by Byrd catching a Guarantano pass 39 yards for the game-ending score.
“Tyler (Byrd) has a really good attitude,” Pruitt said. “He comes to practice with a lot of energy every single day. He’s always been a physical guy. He’s worked hard to develop his hands. It was a really nice throw and catch and a really good run after the catch.”
With the win over Mississippi State, Pruitt moves to 2-1 against SEC West opponents in his head coaching career. He’ll put that record on the line in Tuscaloosa next Saturday against top-ranked Alabama (5-0, 2-0 SEC).
The game is slated for a 9 p.m. ET kick at Bryant-Denny Stadium.