"We played well," said defensive end Titus Brown. "We just didn't play well enough to win."
But it was a closer thing than the scoreboard showed, with a couple of lead-changes in the first half and not quite a touchdown's difference as late as six minutes of the last period. Not until UT placekicker Daniel Lincoln knocked in field goals at 5:45 and 2:32 could the Vols count this one in the books. Or, did the Bulldogs give up their own hopes.
"We fought hard, we finished the game, the effort was good," linebacker Gabe O'Neal said. "We just made a few mistakes here and there. It's just making more plays."
Or, winning a few more matchups at the line of scrimmage where for three periods Mississippi State held its own. "It's the best game we've played since we've been here, considering we played a quality SEC opponent," Croom proclaimed. Which said much about how the coach and squad felt about their collective efforts and execution even in defeat. A defeat which in sum-total came down to UT's advantages up-front offensively, and having a senior triggerman behind them.
Quarterback Erik Ainge completed 22 of his 36 throws for 259 yards and a pair of touchdowns. While he did have one pass picked that lone UT turnover, in the third quarter, did no damage in the long run. Nor was Ainge often hurried or harried with superb protection.
"It was very frustrating," Brown said. "You work so hard to get your past your man and by that time he delivers the ball. The guy has great poise and great confidence in his wide receivers." Such as Lucas Taylor who snared exactly half of Ainge's completions for 186 yards and a 51-yard touchdown that tied the game up in the second period.
Tennessee did a sound job on the ground, too, with 211 yards and an average gain of 5.0 per rush. Adrian Foster was the workhorse with 139 yards on 21 rushes and a touchdown, while Montario Hardesty got 78 net on 16 runs. All told the Vols compiled 470 yards off a worn-down Dog defense. "Their offensive line wore our defensive line out and that quarterback made no mistakes," Croom said. "It's the difference between winning and losing."
The Bulldogs had their own chances at winning though, with a fairly well-balanced attack also. Halfback Anthony Dixon muscled for 108 yards on 26 hard carries and scored on a 30-yard jaunt, the longest of his sophomore season. "We knew we could run on them and throw on them," he said. Which quarterback Wesley Carroll did, for 203 yards on 18-of-33 attempts with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Yet it wasn't just what Carroll did, it was how the freshman did it all that made his day impressive. A second-quarter hit gave the rookie a concussion that didn't clear up until the third period. "He didn't know where he was," Croom said. "At halftime he didn't even know his name. The guy has got guts, and we're talking about a pure freshman who got us that close to winning the ball game."
Carroll downplayed the hero angle. "That was something I've never really experienced," he said. "It really wasn't too bad." Or maybe Carroll didn't realize just how out-of-it he was in the dressing room, to the point Croom was planning on leaving Mike Henig—himself still not full-speed from a broken hand and month's recovery—in for the last half. Yet while Tennessee had the ball in the third period Carroll came-to enough to convince the staff to let him back on the field.
"He's got ‘it' whatever ‘it' is," said Croom, as Carroll threw for one touchdown and 112 second-half yards. "That was just a matter of confidence in myself and knowing I did good in practice," Carroll said. He spread the ball around to eight wideouts, with Tony Burks and Jamayel Smith getting five catches each for 79 and 70 yards.
"I think I played well, everybody played hard offense and defense," Carroll said. "We didn't execute 100% but pretty close to it." Just not close enough to get the SEC win.
"It was a good football game," Croom said. "They did a good job, I thought our kids did a good job."
State had first turn and moved the chains twice before punting from their 44. Starting at the 23 the Vols tried a couple of opening rushes for a net loss before going to their forte. Ainge hooked up with Austin Rogers for a 16-yard gain, then hit Taylor in-stride for 33 more down to the Bulldog 29. On first-and-goal every Dog defender ran one way while Ainge rolled the other way along with Chris Brown for the easy four-yard touchdown at 9:05.
The Bulldogs couldn't immediately answer though they did drive as deep as UT's 37 with help. After a slant-pattern to Smith got 14 yards a reverse-run by Aubrey Bell produced 11 with a personal foul on the tackle adding 15 more. On 4th-and-six State lined up as for a 50-yard field goal try but Adam Carlson took the direct snap and roll-punted. Perfectly, almost, with the ball rolling out of bounds at the three-yard line.
Backed-up the Vols had to play it safe, though a third-down throw would have netted new downs if not for good coverage. The punt only got to their 38-yard and it didn't seem State would get much closer as a second-down shot for Bell was broken up. But on 3rd-and-10 Carroll got time and found Burks curling across the middle. He pulled in the pass at the 30-yard line, and with Smith sealing off two defenders found a lane down the right sideline for the tying touchdown at 5:21.
The Bulldogs got possession back two minutes later at their 24. On 3rd-and-11 they surprised the Vols, and crowd, with a shovel-flip to Justin Williams for 14 yards. With the second offensive line clearing the way Dixon ran for eight and 17 yards and the quarter ended with the ball on Tennessee's 30-yard line. On the first play of the second period the starting line was back in. Dixon took the handoff at left tackle, got a block from his tight end, skipped a tackler at the 20 and rumbled into the end zone. At 14:52 State had a 14-7 advantage.
Which lasted until 8:05. That's when on first down and a foot inside midfield Taylor got a step on cornerback Marcus Washington for a catch around the 20-yard line and untouched jaunt the rest of the way to even things up 14-14. It was still deadlocked with the Vols starting from their 45-yard line with 2:40 left. Not even a minute later they were on State's 10 after a direct-snap to Foster turned into a 29-yard gainer.
Rogers had a touchdown on his hands only to drop the hard-slant throw, and combined pressure by Jamar Chaney and Titus Brown made Ainge unload on third down. It should have been a chip-shot field goal for Daniel Lincoln, but he missed the 26-yarder…his first failure of this freshman season.
Sixty-eight ticks remained, however, and "I was intent on taking the tie to the dressing room," said Croom. "We tried to score just before the half in the LSU game and look what that got us." So three handoffs by Henig to Dixon let the Vols use their remaining timeouts to get the ball back on their 44-yard line with 0:20 showing. A 26-yard throw to Taylor on the left sideline was more than sufficient to give Lincoln another chance, and his 47-yard try from the other hashmark was good for a 17-14 halftime lead.
The Vols stretched that to a ten-point margin one series into the new half. A catch-and-go by Briscoe netted one first down, then Foster made a nifty cutback and had to be run out of bounds at State's 15-yard line. On 3rd-and-12 Ainge threw high but safety De'Mon Glanton was flagged for hitting the receiver too late and too hard. The Vols had a free first down on the seven-yard line. Hardesty got six and Foster the last one for the 24-14 lead at 12:12.
The only good thing to come out of that opening drive was it allowed Carroll time to regain his senses and convince the coaches he could play. Certainly he could hand off to Dixon for gains and first downs, before throwing a slant to Burks that had State on the 21. On 3rd-and-3 Carroll couldn't see the blitzer from his right side which was just as well, as he took time and fired the perfect strike to Smith a step in front of the safety in the end zone. "He threw it right on the money, where it needed to be," the wideout said of the 14-yard touchdown that got State within 24-21 at 8:21.
Tennessee was able to push it out by three points on Lincoln's 29-yarder at 3:47. Carroll threw to Burks for 11 yards and Smith for 15 more around an interference call on the Vols, but the drive stopped short of points. On 4th-and-7 at UT's 35-yard line the Dogs went for the first down, only to have Carroll's toss tipped at the line. Arnil Stallworth made the catch but on his knees two yards shy of the marker at 13:25. Yet replacement cornerback Jasper O'Quinn got the ball back by out-fighting Briscoe on a long toss at the sideline, for the interception at MSU's 37-yard line.
It was the critical juncture as on 3rd-and-9 Smith couldn't come down with a Carroll throw and MSU had to punt. "No question that was the turning point because of the clock," said Croom. "They were eating clock and us, too. No question not being able to convert and keep the drive alive that was pretty much it right there. When we couldn't get that into the end zone they came out and iced the game." By converting a couple of third downs and driving into easy 25-yard range for Lincoln at 5:45.
"They caught us off-balance on third downs," said O'Neal. "We came out a lot in nickel and dime packages and they ran the ball. It was just a lot of miscues, and a lot of luck now and then."
State had no choice but try on 4th-and-3 and again Carroll's throw was a bit tall for Smith. Taking over on the MSU 42 the Vols needed only a move of the chains to be in Lincoln's range for the clinching field goal at 2:32.
Croom said that the Vols were able to counter most everything Mississippi State tried. "But ultimately it came back as it always does to winning in the trenches. They were able to grind it out in the fourth quarter and keep it away from us."
Which didn't leave the coach discouraged, however. At the same time Croom made sure the Bulldogs knew that while they could be proud of their efforts, there is a lot of season still ahead. "We came up short. We're going to be disappointed for 24 hours then get ready for the next game. I told them walk out with their heads held high."
And minds focusing on the coming road trips to West Virginia and Kentucky. "You win some and you lose some," said Smith. "We're going to look at the film, come back and get ready for next week."