KNOXVILLE – Tennessee’s good intentions were rewarded in the best way possible on Saturday afternoon.
They steered them past a conspiracy of mistakes, attrition and misfortune to a joyous gathering before the student section at Neyland Stadium, where they swayed to the sounds of the Tennessee Waltz and celebrated a 20-10 SEC football victory over Mississippi State.
“When you do things the right way,” senior wide receiver Tyler Byrd said, “and you execute one play at a time, you can kind of get going.”
Byrd recounted UT’s journey to this point of a disappointing season as if the Vols (2-4, 1-2 SEC) have been feeling their way through a maze.
“I think we’re trying to do the right things,” he said.
“We know what we’re doing. We just don’t know how to get there exactly.
“It’s the small details of how to get there to make that play every time and I see people on both sides of the ball just trying to do those little details to put us in a position to hopefully win these games.”
The Vols found their way against the Bulldogs (3-3, 1-2) largely with their best defensive effort of the season. They held State to 267 yards. Running back Kylin Hill, the SEC’s leading rusher, managed only 13 yards.
The defenders combined for seven sacks, one short of their total for the first five games combined. They also intercepted three passes.
Defensive tackle Matthew Butler, who had three tackles, a sack and a tackle for lost yardage, described the performance as cathartic in saying, “It was an accumulation of some frustration and getting better.”
The thorough nature of the defense’s performance enabled UT to survive a pair of end zone interceptions thrown by freshman quarterback Brian Maurer, which killed potential scoring drives in the first half. UT coach Jeremy Pruitt referred to the turnovers as “foolish mistakes.”
Because of the defense, UT also was able to withstand injuries to Maurer (concussion) and safety Trevon Flowers (fractured leg).
Maurer apparently was hurt after doing a full flip and landing on his neck to conclude a second-quarter run. His condition wasn’t determined until after he had thrown his second interception. Flowers suffered his injury after intercepting a pass late in the first half.
The defense allowed UT the luxury of being overly conservative with its game plan after Maurer was replaced by Jarrett Guarantano. Tennessee’s former starting quarterback began his relief stint by handing off on nine consecutive plays.
“Can we win a bunch of games playing this way? Probably not,” Pruitt said. “But that’s the way we needed to play to win this game.”
Finally, there was enough defense to survive the loss of freshman linebacker Henry To’o To’o, who was ejected for a targeting call early in the fourth quarter. The penalty helped jumpstart Mississippi State’s lone touchdown drive, which whittled Tennessee’s advantage to 13-10 with 8 minutes, 27 second left.
At that point, the offense stepped up to finish what the defense started. Guarantano directed a 9 play, 91-yard scoring drive that began with six consecutive running plays, which gained 44 of UT’s 190 rushing yards.
Guarantano, who was 6-for-7 passing, kept the drive alive by deftly delivering a swing pass to running Tim Jordan, which netted nine yards on 3rd-and-6 from State’s 47-yard line.
Two plays later, Guarantano connected with Byrd on a short pass to the left side. The senior ducked behind blocks by freshmen Jerrod Means and Ramel Keyton to find running room down the sideline and sprinted 39-yard for the clinching touchdown.
The little details added up to a big play.
Byrd had persevered for four years as a model teammate for a moment like that. Guarantano’s wait wasn’t nearly as long. He was replaced as the starter just last week.
Regardless of the different circumstances, both players handled their situations the right way and ended up where they wanted to be.
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He may be reached at email@example.com.