Here we go again.
Mississippi State’s offense had looked lifeless all afternoon, but after Tennessee’s starting linebacker Henry To’o to’o was ejected for targeting, exposing the Vols’ razor thin depth at inside linebacker, the Bulldogs marched 90-yards in 3:37 to cut Tennessee’s lead to three with 8:27 left.
It looked as if the Vols were going to drop another heartbreaker. Memories of 2015 Florida and Oklahoma and this season’s late loss to BYU were fresh on the mind of the 85,426 fans inside Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee’s offense had been dormant since quarterback Brian Maurer suffered a concussion late in the first half. With Jarrett Guarantano back in at quarterback Tennessee attempted to pound the run and shorten the game.
Tennessee’s offense had just mustered 95 yards in the first 22 minutes of the second half. It looked like the Vols’ defense would have to pick up a big late game stop to win, but with its back against the wall Tennessee’s offense delivered.
Starting the drive at its own nine-yard line Tennessee put together its biggest drive of the season.
Tennessee went 91 yards in nine plays burning 5:44 off the clock in the process. The Vols worked their way to mid field establishing the run, but it was the drives two pass plays that proved to be the difference.
First, on third-and-four at the Bulldogs 47 Guarantano worked his progressions and found the check down to Tim Jordan who got the corner and moved the chains.
Two plays later the Vols would bust it open, thanks to the unlikeliest of heroes.
Guarantano, who lost his starting job three weeks ago at Florida, found senior Tyler Byrd on a three-yard hitch. Byrd found the corner taking it 39 yards to the house for the game sealing touchdown.
It was a pass from a former top-100 recruit who hasn’t lived up to the hype in his time in Knoxville to a senior receiver who was a top-100 recruit but entered the game with zero catches on the year.
On the coldest day of the fall the two-former top-100 recruits made the play of the game to seal the Vols first SEC win of the season.
“Run as fast as I can,” Byrd said was his focus after securing the catch. “I was just thankful for the two outside receivers that are freshman who made good blocks for me. I’m just thankful for them and the o-line.”
It was an offensive line that’s had more bad days than good over the past two seasons, but on Saturday they found a way to keep the quarterback upright, Tennessee quarterback’s were sacked once, and when the game was on the line they found push in the run game.
“It’s always a good feeling being able to impose your will,” Trey Smith said. “Put a man from point-A to point-B to just keep moving, moving, moving and there’s nothing they can do about it. You can see it in their eyes… Coach (Will) Friend preaches it every day. Make them quit.”
What the win will mean for Tennessee the rest of the season is unclear, but the Vols’ 91-yard drive was their best of the season.
“I thought it was a great drive,” head coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “(We) put a really good drive together with the pass to Byrd. We picked up a third down or two, so it was a really big drive. It’s a great win for our program.”