Hooray, hooray and amazing, too. Give us another chorus of Rocky Top. The Tennessee football season has been reborn.
For the first time in a long time, defense pulled an upset and won a game. Mississippi State must have been stunned.
The Vols did not look around with puzzled expressions, wondering where to line up and what to do. They inflicted seven sacks upon Bulldog quarterbacks, intercepted three passes and knocked Kylin Hill out of the Southeastern Conference lead in rushing yardage. He gained just 13 on 11 carries.
As linebacker Daniel Bituli said, “That’s really good.”
There were other strange circumstances. Freshman quarterback Brian Maurer gave up two red zone interceptions and was lost for the second half with an upside-down, land-on-his-head concussion.
Much maligned quarterback Jarrett Guarantano ended up the winning pitcher.
Even as the Vols relied on defense and went very conservative on offense, Guarantano came through when needed. He completed six of seven for 106 yards. He set up a field goal with a 41-yard third-down completion to rapid Ramel Keyton.
When Mississippi State closed to within three points and the outcome was suddenly on the shoulders of the offensive line, Guarantano led a 91-yard drive and sealed the victory with a swing pass that all-but-forgotten Tyler Byrd turned into a 39-yard touchdown run.
It was a great play call by Jim Chaney. Jeremy Pruitt almost smiled.
Alas and alas, the celebration must be brief. Tennessee will go to Alabama as a five-touchdown underdog with Maurer in doubt and without safety Trevon Flowers. He suffered a broken leg. Star freshman linebacker Henry To’o To’o will miss the first half as a penalty for a targeting foul.
“Next man up” is a perilous plan for taking on the Tide.
Worry about all that can wait until tomorrow. Today is about relief and happiness and a victory against a Southeastern Conference foe, the reward for honest labor. It is about the defensive front that bowed up and met a challenge. It is about Nigel Warrior who helped win a game instead of losing another.
It is about Byrd who made the play of a career marked by regression. In the beginning, 2016, Butch Jones thought Tyler was going to be a star. He had three catches and a touchdown against Texas A&M. He had three catches against Florida. He did a lot of other good things.
In 2017, Byrd played mostly on special teams. He had two receptions. Last season, he had one.
Byrd did not drop over in a dead faint when he made the decisive play against Mississippi State. He knew what to say. He praised young receivers who got in the way of Bulldogs and allowed him to turn the corner.
Keyton and Jerrod Means sealed off primary defenders. There were no other obstacles. Byrd turned on the jets. He said his strategy was “Run as fast as I can.”
Teammates were delighted – for him and them.
There were a lot of hugs and pats on the back for defensive Volunteers. Darrell Taylor certainly deserved what he got. He had two sacks. For comparison purposes only, he had one in the five previous games, against BYU.
Taylor praised the defensive front for pushing the pocket and making State quarterbacks retreat.
“We were coming around the edge really fast and making plays.”
Darel Middleton, Matthew Butler, Aubrey Solomon, Kivon Bennett and Bryce Thompson scored sacks. It was a much-improved rush with a minimum of blitzing.
Warrior, Flowers and Kenneth George picked off Mississippi State passes. Warrior led the post-game celebration. He hopped up into the student section. He said that was fun.
“They help us a lot. I just had to show my love back to the fans. The student section is loud. Me jumping into the crowd was just my appreciation.”
My appreciation will be to look ahead instead of backward, to not ask why the Vols couldn’t do some of this a little earlier, to stop fretting about where is the Tennessee running attack and to give Pruitt another foot or so of coaching rope.
Alabama is what it is, very good, undoubtedly mission impossible. South Carolina is much improved. UAB and Kentucky are tough enough. Missouri, at home, is probably better than Tennessee. Vanderbilt just lost to UNLV. Oh, my.
Based on how the Vols looked, their season is yet to be determined. Hooray for the possibilities.
Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org