It was exactly what Tennessee needed.
The Vols entered Saturday’s game against SEC foe Mississippi State on a two-game losing streak and with a winless record in conference play.
But after a somewhat-promising performance against No. 3 Georgia the game prior, the matchup between Tennessee and the Bulldogs would surely reveal what the Vols’ true capabilities are throughout the rest of the season.
And head coach Jeremy Pruitt’s team didn’t disappoint, as the Vols held offensive-minded Joe Moorhead’s Bulldogs to just one touchdown in a 20-10 win at Neyland Stadium.
“That was a really good team win against a good football team,” Pruitt said. “We had some things that didn’t go our way. We had a couple of guys that got banged up and had to leave the game. Turned the ball over some there in the first half and in the red area, which made the game a lot closer there toward the end …
“But I thought our guys fought really hard. They’ve been busting their tail all fall camp trying to play like we did today. And I’m sure we didn’t play perfect, but we found a way to win.”
In freshman quarterback Brian Maurer’s second career start, the Vols scored first with a 15-yard touchdown run from Tim Jordan in the first quarter, taking a 7-0 lead by the end of the period.
A 51-yd Mississippi State field goal cut Tennessee’s lead to just four points during the second quarter, but Brent Cimaglia got the points back for the Vols with his own 49-yard field goal as the first half expired.
Maurer left the game late in the second quarter after landing on his head, replaced by Jarrett Guarantano. Maurer had thrown two interceptions prior to exiting.
Another Cimaglia field goal, this one from 22 yards out, gave Tennessee a 13-3 advantage by the start of the fourth quarter.
Mississippi State quarterback Garrett Shrader connected with Deddrick Thomas on a 17-yard touchdown pass to cut the Vols’ lead to just three points, but a 39-yard passing touchdown from Guarantano to Tyler Byrd with under three minutes remaining sealed the win for Tennessee.
“It was a great team victory,” Cimaglia said. “We played a really good team across the sideline. I’m just very happy for our team because it was new for us.”
Tennessee’s defense put together arguably its best performance of the season on Saturday.
The Vols totaled seven sacks, with standout pass rusher Darrell Taylor notching two. Tennessee also had three interceptions against Mississippi State, as Kenneth George, Trevon Flowers and Nigel Warrior all snagged a Bulldog pass defensively.
The Vols also held Mississippi State standout running back Kylin Hill in check.
“I think Kylin Hill had 13 yards,” Pruitt said. “He’s a really good back. He’s one of the better backs in this league. I think our guys did a really nice job gang-tackling. I think our defense was stout. Done a phenomenal job putting the plan together and our guys went and executed.”
Pruitt said after Saturday’s game that Maurer suffered a concussion against the Bulldogs, but didn’t give a timetable for his return.
“Our guys felt like it was best to keep (Maurer) out of the game,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt also confirmed that Flowers broke his leg on Saturday.
Freshman linebacker Henry To’o To’o was ejected during the second half due to a targeting call. He will be suspended for the first half of Tennessee’s game at Alabama.
“(To’o To’o’s) got to lower his area that he’s going to hit the guy,” Pruitt said. “They’re going to call that targeting every time.”
The Vols will travel to Tuscaloosa on Oct. 19 for a matchup against stout No. 1 Alabama.
The Crimson Tide is 6-0 on the season, with a 3-0 mark in SEC play, after a 47-28 win over Texas A&M on Saturday. Tennessee hasn’t beaten Alabama since 2006.
“We have a hard part of our schedule coming up,” Cimaglia said. “With this (win), it really boosts up everything. So we’re really excited. We’re going to start game-planning tomorrow. We’re excited.”
The game will also mark Pruitt’s first return to Alabama since leaving the Crimson Tide’s staff in 2017.
He was Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator before taking the Tennessee head coaching job.