STARKVILLE, Miss. — Time of possession usually isn't a big concern of Tennessee's offense, which prides itself on operating at a breakneck pace.
But it became a big concern for the Vols' beleaguered defense in the first half Saturday night at Davis Wade Stadium.
The Vols couldn't overcome a sluggish first half in a 41-31 loss to No. 19 Mississippi State. The Vols (3-3, 0-3 SEC) remain winless against ranked opponents in coach Derek Dooley's three-year tenure, while Mississippi State (6-0, 3-0) is a win over Middle Tennessee State away from being undefeated for a much-anticipated matchup against No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 27.
The Vols' defense has struggled before this season, but the problems on Saturday were exacerbated by a UT offense that never developed a rhythm until after halftime.
Even when the Vols reached the end zone in the first half, it didn't always provide a respite for the defense. Cordarrelle Patterson's 98-yard kickoff return, while exhilarating, also immediately put the defense back on the field.
Tennessee trailed 27-14 at the break, and the defense spent nearly three-fourths of those 30 minutes on the field.
When the offense awoke in the third quarter, it removed a huge burden for the defense. The second half was markedly different from the first snap. Tennessee started by moving 62 yards for a field goal in a drive that ate up four minutes. Then the Vols' defense answered with a three-and-out on Mississippi State first drive.
Tennessee Stat Book
After Tennessee scored a touchdown, UT defensive tackle Darrington Sentimore started Mississippi State's second drive of the second half by sacking quarterback Tyler Russell for an 8-yard loss. Another three-and-out followed for a Mississippi State team that had moved the ball with ease in the first half.
Deep into the third quarter, UT's defensive players found themselves in an unusual situation: They were well-rested.
The difference showed. In the first half, the Bulldogs collected 293 yards of total offense and 19 first downs in nearly 23 minutes of offense. In the second half, Mississippi State controlled the ball for only about 14 minutes and gained 157 yards (almost all in the fourth quarter).
Mississippi State actually gained more yards on the first play of the fourth quarter (a 21-yard run by LaDarius Perkins) than it did in the entire third quarter.
The Bulldogs didn't reach the end zone in the second half until a turnover was gifted by Tennessee. Johnthan Banks stripped Vols running back Devrin Young and the Bulldogs recovered on UT's 30. Within moments, they were in the end zone with a 34-24 lead.
But it was Mississippi State's final possession in which that newfound defensive edge was desperately needed. Tennessee urgently needed a stop to stay in the game, but the defense failed to answer.
As the Vols burned through timeouts, Mississippi State kept converting first downs. Rather than attempt a field goal on fourth down in the closing seconds, Mississippi State tested Tennessee's defense. Russell found Malcolm Johnson in the back of the end zone to finish off the Vols and deal a final indignity to the Tennessee defense that had seemed to be making strides after halftime.
In their three SEC games, the Vols have now allowed 62 second-half points, 129 points overall and 1,565 total yards of offense.