KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee went into Saturday’s homecoming game against Southern Miss in a mess.
Coach Butch Jones’ job was on the line and a fifth straight loss could have given athletic director John Currie the go-ahead to cut the cord.
Offensive lineman Drew Richmond was injured. Redshirt freshman Devante Brooks started.
True freshman offensive lineman Riley Locklear “burned” his redshirt and played right guard. Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Ryan Johnson started right guard.
With all the lineup shuffling, freshman right guard Trey Smith started at left tackle, the first Vols rookie to start there since at least 1988.
In the second quarter, starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano suffered an apparent right ankle injury, went to the sidelines and true freshman Will McBride was forced into action and also used up his redshirt.
Oh, by the way, junior defensive end Jonathan Kongbo was suspended and did not play. Jones called it a one-game suspension, so Kongbo should be back in the lineup next Saturday when the Vols take on a fast-improving Missouri at 7:30 p.m. on the SEC Network.
“A lot of guys had to step in and step,” senior left guard Jashon Robertson said. “I think the guys that did end stepping in on the offensive line did a really good job.”
Tennessee’s offense, guided by McBride, a third-string, grass-green rookie quarterback, the entire second half, continued to struggle and the Vols managed to defeat Southern Miss, 24-10, and snap a depressing four-game losing streak before 95,551 fans at Neyland Stadium.
University officials count tickets sold, but the actual crowd appeared to be around 70,000 to 85,000 by most estimates.
Two of Tennessee’s three touchdowns came on runs of 20 and 3 yards by tailback John Kelly, who missed the Kentucky after being suspended following a traffic stop in which police found drugs.
“Honestly, it hurt me to miss the game last week,” said Kelly, who gained 79 yards on 20 carries. “It was a big disappointment for my teammates, my family and everybody. I was hurt when I was watching the game and I was glad to just be back out there.”
Kelly’s TD runs were set up by Emmanuel Moseley’s 19-yard interception return and Darrell Taylor’s forced fumble and the recovery by Rashaan Gaulden at the Golden Eagles’ 20-yard line.
“On Wednesday, we have ‘hunt the ball Wednesday,’ ” senior defensive end Kendal Vickers said. “It’s a point of interest every week. We want to be one of the best defenses when it comes to turnovers.”
The Vols’ stout-hearted, opportunistic defensive play bailed the Vols out with its third-quarter heroics. Tennessee held Southern Miss to one touchdown, back-up quarterback Kwadra Griggs’ 1-yard run midway through the fourth quarter.
“We’re thinking about (turnovers) more,” senior linebacker Colton Jumper said, “and it’s really just coming to light now. Guys like Rashaan Gaulden are flying around and (he) has probably had four in the past three weeks. It’s a momentum thing. You start to see them more and then it’s going to be in the back of your mind.”
Moseley stepped in front of a USM receiver and got the interception in stride and rumbled to the Golden Eagles’ 20. A patented Kelly touchdown run – he ran hard to inside the 5, took a shot at the 1 and spun backward into the end zone.
After Aaron Medley’s point-after kick, the Vols had breathing room at 17-3.
Within minutes, defensive end Darrell Taylor, who missed the Alabama game after getting into a fight with offensive lineman Trey Smith during practice, hit USM quarterback Deon Howard and forced a fumble. Gaulden recovered at the Golden Eagles’ 19.
Things got a little – no, real – weird over the next few minutes.
It appeared the Golden Knights had stalled the drive and Tennessee would settle for another Medley field goal – for about three five to 10 minutes.
Officials penalized -- probably wrongly – a USM special teams player for jumping straight up in the air with both arms fully extended over his head “attempting” to block the kick. It was one of the strangest personal fouls ever seen at Neyland Stadium.
Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson went ballistic, walked briskly onto the field out to the hash-marks, his face flush with anger. Officials hit him with a personal foul as well.
The Vols then got a 3-yard Kelly touchdown run and USM was slapped with another personal foul, this one for grabbing Kelly’s facemask. After Medley’s kick, Tennessee had a 24-3 advantage. The facemask penalty was marked off on the ensuing kickoff.
In a matter of 2 minutes and 7 seconds, the Vols moved from nursing a 10-3 lead to extending the margin to 21 points.
“It’s not going to do me any good to talk about it,” Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson said. “You were at the game. Everybody was at the game. There’s no reason to even talk about it. It is what it is.”
Said Jones of the defensive gems that quickly changed the complexion of the game: “Monumental. Moseley’s interception really started it. The defense stepped up and generated the field position when we needed it. That was huge.”
The Vols (4-5) took the opening possession following a 46-yard kickoff return by the heralded Evan Berry, his first since the Georgia Tech game, and drove 49 yards in nine plays. Guarantano capped the march with a 3-yard run.
It was the first time this season Tennessee scored a touchdown on the first possession.
With the opening return, Berry moved up to second-place all-time in kick return yardage at Tennessee. He now has 1,820 career kick return yards and trails only Willie Gault (1,854).
With 5:57 left in the first half, Guarantano suffered the ankle injury and went directly to the medical tent on the sideline. The redshirt freshman from Lodi, New Jersey, had gone 9 for 13 for 102 yards. He rushed twice for 1 yard and one touchdown.
Guarantano gave way to McBride, a grass-green rookie from League City, Texas, who had never taken a college snap.
While gathering himself, McBride directed the Vols’ to a field goal and 10-3 halftime lead. McBride turned in a solid second-half performance.
“Will has been ready to go for a number of weeks now,” Jones said. “Will has a quiet confidence about himself. He doesn’t get rattled much. It’s hard to get an emotion response out of him, (but) the kids believe in him.
“He came into the game in a challenging situation. There was no panic. He was very calm, very poised.”
On his first snap, McBride dropped back and fired a long pass down the middle that missed connecting with Josh Palmer in the end zone by about six inches.
McBride was solid in “managing” the offense after halftime. After putting up only 140 total yards in the first two quarters, the Vols finished with 210 yards, with 115 yards passing. Guarantano was 9 for 13 with 102 yards in the first half.
Early in the third period, wide receiver Marquez Callaway suffered a possible right knee injury and left the field with assistance of trainers. Callaway’s 42-yard catch from Guarantano supplied the impetus for a Medley field goal of 27 yards that pushed the lead to 10-3.
Two of the Vols’ better offensive weapons – Callaway and Guarantano – did not return to action.
With controversy swirling around the program earlier in the week after reports questioned why offensive lineman Brett Kendrick played almost the entire second half at Kentucky after Guarantano’s injury.
“I am not going to comment on injuries from here on out to protect our players,” he said. “But we expect (Jarrett) to be ready to go (at Missouri).”
The Golden Eagle, now 0-6 all-time against the Vols, finished with 279 total yards with 161 passing and 118 rushing. Howard rushed for 100 yards. Wide receiver Korey Robertson caught eight passes for 122 yards.
Southern Miss (5-4) was hurt by 14 penalties for 120 yards.
The Golden Eagles sliced the Vols’ lead to 24-10 with a 90-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter, reserve quarterback Kwadra Griggs scoring on a 1-yard run.
While the Vols have struggled mightily losing five straight SEC games, they notched their 12th straight game against non-conference schools, including four this season.
So, did Jones’ status change in any measurable way?
Did Jones save his job for another week? Considering the team’s final three at Missouri and home against LSU and Vanderbilt, will the full impact of Saturday’s win be momentary respite?
Saturday’s game gave the Vols their best shot at a win as the season winds down.
Missouri walloped chaotic Florida, 45-27, LSU fell to Alabama, 24-10, and Vanderbilt upended Western Kentucky, 31-17.
“We’re playing one of the hottest teams in college football right now and we’re going on the road and that’s going to be a challenge,” Jones said. “It’s a lot easier to prepare coming off a victory. These kids have worked so hard. They’ve not let any of the clutter or distraction or anything affect what goes on in the Anderson Training Center every single day.
“I guess that’s why I’m so proud of them, their whole mindset and belief in our football program.”
So, stay tuned.
Note: Vols punter Trevor Daniel, one of many finalists for the Ray Guy award, had another brilliant effort on Saturday. Of eight punts, Daniel had six of 50 or more yards, with a long of 60, and dropped three inside the 20. He averaged an impressive 49.2 yards.
Southern Miss 0 3 0 7 – 10
Tennessee 7 3 14 0 – 24
TEN – Jarrett Guarantano 3 run (Aaron Medley kick), 10:59
USM – FG Parker Shaunfield 27, 8:16
TEN – FG Medley 38, 2:42
TEN – John Kelly 20 run (Medley kick), 5:15
TEN – Kelly 3 run (Medley kick), 3:17
USM – Kwadra Griggs 1 run (Shaunfield kick), 6:45
First Downs 18 14
Rushes-Yds 42-118 38-95
Passing Yards 161 115
Comp-Att-Int 13-34-1 10-21-0
Plys-Tot Yds 76-279 59-210
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 1-0
Punts-Avg 8-45.6 8-49.2
Penalties-Yds 14-120 3-29
RUSHING – Southern Miss: Ito Smith 20-51, Keon Howard 10-29, Tez Parks 5-28, Kwadra Griggs 7-10; Tennessee: John Kelly 20-79, Ty Chandler 11-15, Will McBride 1-minus 2, Jarrett Guarantano 2-minus 4.
PASSING – Southern Miss: Howard 7-22-1-100, Griggs 6-11-0-61, Allenzae Staggers 0-1-0-0; Tennessee: Guarantano 9-13-0-102, McBride 1-8-0-13.
RECEIVING – Southern Miss: Korey Robertson 8-122, Isaiah Jones 2-18, Smith 2-11, Parks 1-10; Tennessee: Marquez Callaway 2-53, Ethan Wolf 2-20, Eli Wolf 1-12, Jordan Murphy 1-12, Josh Palmer 1-11, Tyler Byrd 1-6, Carlin Fils-Aime 1-6, Kelly 1-minus5.
(Contact Larry Fleming at email@example.com and on Twitter @larryfleming44)