Dave Hooker audio
Mississippi State Bulldogs
When Tennessee’s offense whiffed on a couple of knockout punches Saturday night, the defense took matters into its own hands.
In a span of 87 seconds of the fourth quarter, the Vols scored twice on interception returns to turn out the lights on Mississippi State in a 34-3 SEC victory at Neyland Stadium.
“Not dead yet,’’ said UT coach Phillip Fulmer after the Vols improved to 3-4 and nailed down their first SEC win after an 0-3 start.
“It’s almost indescribable the difference between winning and losing.’’
An announced crowd of 98,239 might have still had some doubt about who would be winning and who would be losing when the third quarter ended.
UT was nursing a 13-3 lead, but also failing on a couple of opportunities to extend it.
That doubt was removed with a flourish when a couple of Vol defenders picked off Tyson Lee passes and personally deposited them in the end zone.
That the irrepressible Eric Berry got the first one and took it 72 yards for a score came as no shock.
The sophomore’s 10th career interception — in only 21 games — was followed by an electrifying dash that broke the SEC career return-yardage record and made it 20-3 with 10:37 on the clock.
“I’ve never seen anybody like Eric Berry,’’ said Fulmer.
“It’s amazing what he does when he has the football in his hands.’’
Three plays later Lee threw another ball to an orange jersey.
The only surprise was that it was not No. 14 this time.
Instead, Demetrice Morley had only 32 yards to cover with his pick and Tennessee led 27-3 with 9:10 to play.
“You can’t turn the ball over for points and expect to win,’’ said Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom, “especially (against) a talented team like that on the road.
“In some areas they (UT) are not as strong as normal and in some areas they are better than they normally are.’’
When Morley crossed the goal line, the UT defense had outscored the offense 14-13.
That changed on Lennon Creer’s 1-yard touchdown with 2:39 to play — his 12th carry in a 12-play drive.
Tennessee, tuning up for a visit from No. 2 Alabama, never trailed in besting the Bulldogs (2-5, 1-3) in a match of offensively challenged teams.
Daniel Lincoln’s two field goals staked UT to a 6-3 halftime lead. Montario Hardesty scored on a 1-yard plunge in the third quarter to make it 13-3.
UT outgained State 275 yards to 189. The Vols won the rushing battle handily, 139 yards to 69.
“We’ve been in the doldrums offensively,’’ Fulmer said. “Tonight, we made some strides to come out of that.’’
Nick Stephens was 10-of-20 passing for 136 yards, a modest but efficient effort. He has yet to throw an interception in his three starts.
“My job is to go out and play smart and let the defense and running game do their jobs,’’ Stephens said.
“The O-line did a great job tonight. That’s what it came down to.’’
The D-line did a pretty good job as well — after halftime.
The Bulldogs managed only 69 yards and four first downs in the second half.
Not unpredictably, the first half was a battle for field-goal opportunities, neither team able to seriously threaten the end zone.
The Bulldogs smartly marched the game’s opening possession to the UT 19. But Lee was shaken up while being sacked by Chris Walker, after which Adam Carlson missed a 39-yard field-goal try.
Tennessee started slow, as per usual. The crowd’s first cheer came when Creer ran 4 yards to convert a first down on the first play of the second period.
Stephens hustled 18 yards on a scramble to the 23, but it was still left to Lincoln to hit from 36 yards for a 3-0 lead.
Carlson’s accuracy was better on his second try, from 43 yards, and it was 3-3 with 6:34 left in the half.
The Vols found success with Arian Foster in the running game, including a 19-yard scamper to the State 9.
The 8, however, was the end of the line. Lincoln was true from 28 yards and the Vols took a 6-3 lead into the break.
Tennessee would dominate the second half, beginning with Dennis Rogan’s 40-yard return to near midfield on the opening kickoff.
Stephens then completed three critical passes to shepherd the 53-yard drive to the end zone.
The biggest came on fourth-and-2 at the State 30. Stephens found Lucas Taylor for a first down at the 21.
From there, a third-and-10 pass to Austin Rogers produced an apparent touchdown. However, after review, Rogers was ruled down at the 1.
Hardesty dived over the top and UT led 13-3.
That’s where it stayed at the end of the third quarter, despite another Tennessee threat.
Stephens and Denarius Moore hooked up for a 45-yard bomb to the State 17. It went for naught, however, then Lincoln skulled a 34-yard field-goal try wide left.
In short order, DeAngelo Willingham’s interception on the first play of the fourth quarter gave the Vols an opportunity at the Bulldogs’ 47. Three plays went nowhere and Britton Colquitt punted it away.
But the interceptions were contagious.
Lee who had not been picked off in 93 attempts coming into the game, was victimized three times in a span of eight throws and that was the ballgame.
“It goes back to a team effort,’’ said Berry. “When you’re getting pressure up front and getting tipped balls, just run to the ball and good things will happen.’’
Mike Strange may be reached at 865-342-6276.