Quick Summary: The Vols had another chance to knock off a ranked SEC opponent Saturday night.
Just like they did against Florida and at Georgia, they couldn’t make enough big plays late to pull it out. Coach Derek Dooley, who coached from the press box after undergoing hip surgery this week, failed to pick up his first win against a ranked opponent. The Bulldogs won by a final of 41-31.
Tennessee was trying to play catch-up all evening. Mississippi State held leads of 17-7 and 27-14 in the first half. The Vols eventually pulled within three points in the fourth quarter after quarterback Tyler Bray found tight end Ben Bartholomew for a 10-yard touchdown pass, but Tennessee never got another chance after that point.
Starting running back Rajion Neal left the game with an apparent leg injury and did not return. Sophomore Devrin Young got most of the carries in his absence and totaled 58 yards on 13 carries. Mississippi State running back LaDarius Perkins finished the game with 101 yards and a touchdown on 23 attempts.
It was over when: The Vols had multiple chances to stop Mississippi State on its final possession, but the Bulldogs continued to convert and move down the field on a 14-play, 75-yard game-clinching drive. A touchdown pass from Bulldogs’ quarterback Tyler Russell to tight end Malcolm Johnson ended any chance Tennessee had to make the comeback.
Tennessee players of the game: Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson did it all for the Vols. His 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown got Tennessee back in the game when it fell down 17-7 early. He lined up at receiver and running back. He had two receptions for 25 yards and a touchdown, and three carries for 57 yards to go along with his kickoff return score.
Mississippi State player of the game: Quarterback Tyler Russell showed why he’s one of the league’s rising stars. He completed 23-of-37 passes for 291 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He spread the ball around to eight different targets, and avoided making any costly errors.
Unsung hero: On a night that had several forgettable moments for Tennessee’s special teams, kicker/punter Michael Palardy had a strong performance. He hit a season-long field goal of 38 yards and was perfect on his four extra-point attempts. He also came in as a replacement for struggling punter Matt Darr and hit three punts for an average of 44.7 yards, with a long of 54.
Three stats of note:
1.Tennessee had 156 yards passing: That is by far a season low for the Vols. Mississippi State’s secondary limited the big pass plays all night. Bray looked deep a few times, but there were always MSU defenders ready to help over the top. Star wide receiver Justin Hunter, who was often guarded by cornerback Johnthan Banks, was limited to just two receptions.
2. Mississippi State won the turnover-margin battle (plus-2): That’s always going to be one of the keys in a game that features teams with similar talent levels, as was the case Saturday night. Banks had a critical strip and fumble recovery of Tennessee running back Devrin Young in the fourth quarter. UT safety Byron Moore also dropped what seemed to be a certain interception.
3. Mississippi State won the time-of-possession battle 36:31 to 23:29: The Vols couldn’t get off the field when they really needed to. State converted two fourth downs and controlled the clock. Defensively, the Vols were aggressive on third and fourth downs, but Russell took advantage of the man-to-man coverage for several key passes.
Where does Tennessee go from here: It’s not fair to say coach Derek Dooley is done at Tennessee. Yes, he needed this win, and yes, the season is going the wrong direction quickly. But there’s still a lot of football to be played. The Vols have put themselves in a position where they might need to do the unexpected to salvage Dooley’s job and the season. That could mean they need to pull an upset against Alabama or South Carolina. At the very least, they’re going to need to win their last four – Troy, Missouri, Kentucky and Vanderbilt – to keep 2012 from being another disastrous season like 2011. They continue to be competitive and just a play or two away from a big win. That can only get a coach and a team so far, though. The Vols need to figure out a way to pull out a big win very soon.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.