KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Vols snapped a six-game losing streak against FBS opponents and a four-game SEC losing streak with a 20-10 win over Mississippi State at Neyland Stadium Saturday.
Jeremy Pruitt's defense held the SEC's leading rusher Kylin Hill (119.2 rushing yards per game before Saturday) to 13 yards on 11 carries. The Big Orange defense intercepted three passes and recorded seven sacks, the highest total in Pruitt era.
Freshman quarterback Brian Maurer started the game for the Vols but left late in the second quarter with a concussion and redshirt junior Jarrett Guarantano took over.
Here's what Pruitt said at his postgame press conference:
Opening Statement: “That was a really good team win against a good football team. 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. We turned the ball over some there in the first half in the red area, which made the game a lot closer there toward the end. If you get six points there, that’s a totally different deal. We’ve got to be able to take care of the football. But I thought our guys fought really hard. They’ve been busting their tails 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. That’s one of the things we talked about all week, playing cleaner football, playing more physical and playing for longer. And I think our guys did that. If you look defensively, I think what our guys did with their running game… I think Kylin Hill had 13 yards, and 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 of gang tackling, and I think our defensive staff did a phenomenal job of putting a plan together, and our guys went and executed. We got some turnovers in the back end, which was big today. So, if you get turnovers in the red area, which we got one and they got two, keeping points off the board is huge there. We created a short field right before the half, which gave us a chance to get three points, which was huge going into halftime. Offensively, we moved the ball some there in the first half. We’ve got to be more consistent. We’ve got to be more consistent in the run game, and some of that has to do with the RPO game. If you’re not going to block support, and support is coming, you better give the guy the ball because there’s no one to block him. Some of those go on the awareness of the quarterbacks, and we have to do a better job with that. I thought it was a great drive there at the end of the game. I think we got the ball with eight minutes to go, and we put a really good drive together. We finished it off there with a pass to Byrd and converted a third down or two in there, so really big drive. It’s a great win for our program, and it’s good for these guys who are working their tails off to have some fun with it.”
On Jarrett Guarantano playing and if they ran different plays when he was in: “We ran the some stuff (as when Maurer was in). You have to sometimes call a game based off the scoreboard and how the team is playing. Our defense was playing really well. Right before the half there, we were pretty conservative. We knew what the line to gain was for our kicker, and there’s 50 seconds in the half there, and we got it. Brent (Cimaglia) kicked it through there, so it was a big thing right before the half. But we stayed with the same game plan as the game went. Our defense was playing pretty good, we didn’t want to make a mistake, so that’s kind of the way we called the game there. Can we win a bunch of games like that? Probably not. But that’s the way we needed to play to win this game, so I thought our coaches did a nice job of doing that.”
On game plan for Kylin Hill: “I think our guys played gap-sound. We shrugged blockers. We changed the line of scrimmage a little bit. We wrapped-up tackled, we gang tackled and made some plays in space. Going into the game we felt like we needed to make their quarterbacks beat us and not let this guy beat us, and that’s kind of what we tried to do there, and I think our kids did a nice job of executing the game plan.”
On how he thought the O-line played: “For me, when I’m watching the game, I’m looking at most of the things in the back end, so it’s hard to see from the sideline exactly how we’re playing up there, but I’m pretty sure we played pretty good up front. Defensively, we had some pass-rush today. We affected the quarterback. I know they scrambled some down through there, but that’s ok. Every time they scrambled they were eating up clock, and we’re playing with a two-score lead there. And some of the things from that we’ll learn and improve a little bit, but I thought defensive line wise, we played really well. I think Mississippi State did a nice job up front, giving us a few different looks on the defensive line – walking some backers up, twisting some guys up in there. I know we missed a few things, but sometimes in the run game you have to win with your wide receivers blocking, and we have to probably do a better job there. But it’s hard for me to tell with the O-line until I watch the film.”
On what enabled the defense to create takeaways today: “When you do what you’re supposed to do, most of the time, you’re usually in the vicinity of whoever you’re guarding. If you’ve got pass rush, and you’re rushing the pass rush lanes, and you work some technique there, you make the quarterback move off the spot. I think early in the game, we affected the quarterback. We got him with a couple of pressures and sacked him a few times and hit him. It doesn’t take a whole lot for guys to start to look and say, ‘Is this cat coming right here? Is the star coming? Is the safety coming? Is the backer coming? Where are they coming from?’ Our secondary guys were in the right spots, and we got pressure and didn’t let them step up in the pocket on some of those throws.”
On what Tyler Byrd’s touchdown can show other players, in terms of finding ways to contribute to the team: “Tyler has a really good attitude. He comes out there to practice, and he’s got a lot of energy every single day. He probably runs more yards around that field than anybody. He’s always been a physical guy, used a little bit in the run game. He’s worked hard to develop his hands, and he was open a couple of other times there when I thought we were going to get him the ball. It was a really good throw and catch, and a really good run after the catch.”
On the targeting call on Henry’ To’o To’o: “Henry’s got to lower his area that he’s going to hit the gut at. They’re going to call that targeting every time. He had his eyes up, his chest up. He did not hit him with the crown of the head, but they’re going to protect quarterbacks who are defenseless from here up. He knew it when he came over there. He said, ‘I should have hit him more in here.’”
On what it meant for Jarrett Guarantano to step in at quarterback: “We didn’t ask him to do a whole lot. He did a good job. He’s worked hard to be prepared when the moment comes. We didn’t ask him to do a whole lot today. That wasn’t because it was him; it was the way the game was going. He took an RPO out there, and it was good. He made a couple of third-down throws that were critical and had one with Jauan (Jennings) down there. I said it last time we were in here, he would help us win a game this year. He’ll help us win some more. That’s the thing about being the quarterback. When you have some success, you probably get too much praise. When you don’t, you probably get too much blame. That’s part of the position. He knows that and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s everybody that’s played that position for the last 100 years and for the next 100 years. He’s just got to go to work and get ready to play next week.”
On Brian Maurer’s injury: “Brian had a concussion, and we thought it was best to keep him out of the game.”
On how beneficial it is to get a win like this with a young team: “I know one thing about our team that’s pretty unique, to me, more than any team I’ve ever been a part of is we lose Henry (To’o To’o) with the targeting and now we have to throw in Quavaris (Crouch), and he’s now playing outside linebacker; we have to move Bituli around, and unfortunately Trevon Flowers, after the interception, hurt his leg. He’s a guy who hasn’t played a lot of football; he broke his collarbone last year. He’s a guy that I think is going to be a really good player. He’s been banged up with a hamstring during fall camp, and he started playing well last week against Georgia. He played well today, and unfortunately, we lost him. But now we throw in Theo (Jackson), and Jaylen McCollough. So, we just keep putting younger guys out there, and we have a young football team, and they have so much to learn. There are so many things about football - different situations, scenarios. You learn your job, but then there’s all of the multiples that the offense is creating in situations in a game. There are so many things that we have to teach our guys, and they continue to work and learn and get better, and they’ll continue to do that. We’ll have to play some other guys next week, and there are a couple of guys that I saw out there today… We played Roman Harrison, and we played Solon Page. Solon’s been here, but he hasn’t had a chance to play a lot of ball. He made a good block on one of the kickoffs, but he got a holding call on another one.”
On what led to the play call on Tyler Byrd’s touchdown: “Well, we were just running a little zone play, and we were replacing the backer there. We ran it like four or five times when it was probably there. But, when you’re trying to make the block, Jerrod (Means) waited a little bit before he took it and we told him to take it and he did. Jerrod Means is a guy that you mentioned played today; he’s going to continue to play. He’s learned what to do, and Ramel (Keyton) made a great catch there down the sideline.”
On the defense holding Mississippi State: “It helped, for sure. We gave the offense the ball back several times, so we played really well in the first half and gave the offense some opportunities. And hey, we moved the ball. We moved the ball right down the field a couple of times, and we just threw picks in the end zone, which Brian (Maurer) can’t do. It’s foolish mistakes - he’s working the right side of the field, the corner bails, take the hitch. It’s third-and-eight, and it’s not a good down-and-distance for any quarterback. You go through your progressions, they’re not there, throw the ball away and we’ll take the three points. You can’t get greedy down there, so he’ll learn from that.”
On if there is anything special that allowed them to put pressure on Mississippi State: “I feel like our guys worked hard to understand the game plan. The coaches did a nice job. Our guys played hard. To me, they played on the other side of the line of scrimmage, which we need to do more of. And, we covered them some in the back end, and there’s lots of things that go into getting a good pass rush. Some of it, you might get some good pressure, and we scheme somebody up, sometimes you just win one on ones, and sometimes you cover them well enough that they have to hold the ball and there’s nowhere to go with the ball.”