KNOXVILLE – Of all the work that went into Tennessee’s first SEC football victory in 11 months, Jeremy Pruitt seemed to linger over one achievement in particular.
The 91-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that clinched the Vols’ 20-10 victory over Mississippi State was the best combination of execution and effort. It drew first mention by UT’s coach on Monday, in advance of Saturday’s visit to No. 1 Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC) for a 9 p.m.
“One of the big positives out of the game was the way our offense took over the last eight minutes of the game,” he said. “We had a 91-yard drive. It was very positive.
“We challenged them to do that and they did that.”
Pruitt’s coaching background is defense and there was plenty to savor on that side of the football as well. For example, the Vols (2-4, 1-2) recorded seven sacks, one short of their season’s total and the most in a game since 2017 against UMass.
They held State’s Kylin Hill, the SEC’s leading rusher, to 13 net yards.
They came up with three interceptions.
Still, upon further review, the execution didn’t turn out to be quite what Pruitt was anticipating.
“Defensively, it probably wasn’t as clean as I was expecting on Saturday,” he said. “We have to be cleaner when it comes to execution. I thought our guys played hard. The effort and toughness were not an issue.”
Conversely, the final touchdown drive, which consumed nearly six minutes, was the season’s best in terms of cleanliness. That’s saying something considering it was directed by quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who started the game as a backup. The offensive line was a makeshift group with Jerome Carvin and Darnell Wright manning the right side.
Finally, the clinching 39-yard TD pass was caught by reserve Tyler Byrd, who benefitted from the blocking of freshmen receivers Jerrod Means and Ramel Keyton.
Tennessee’s only chance of being competitive with the Crimson Tide is replicating the drive and keeping the football away from Alabama’s explosive offense as long as possible.
In other developments:
- Starting quarterback Brian Maurer, who left Saturday’s game with concussion-like symptoms, took snaps at practice on Sunday. “So, he’s going to be fine, I’m sure,” Pruitt said.
- Pruitt wouldn’t second-guess UT’s handling of Maurer on Saturday. He stayed in the game for two plays after falling and landing on his neck.
“Every play there’s a lot of people running into each other; they’re hitting their heads,” Pruitt said. “I mean I guess we could stop the game and evaluate everybody out there. But I don’t think we have time for that.”
- Assistant coaches Chris Rumph and Tee Martin both moved from the press box to the sideline on Saturday.
Rumph’s re-deployment, Pruitt said, was based on UT’s inexperience at outside linebacker, the position Rumph coaches. Martin was on the sideline to help with substitutions at wide receiver. Martin’s presence might have factored into Means and Keyton being on the field to block for Byrd’s TD reception.
- Pruitt said he didn’t know Tennessee had orange pants but suggested wearing them last Saturday after learning that they did.
- Pruitt on Alabama: “They have to really work hard to not score 100 points a game. Coach (Nick) Saban has been kind. He was kind to us last year.”
Alabama won last season’s meeting, 58-21.
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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.