Tennessee responded with an 80-yard scoring drive in only six plays, highlighted by a 56-yard screen pass, from true freshman James Banks to redshirt freshman C.J. Fayton, that gave the Vols a first and goal at the 4. Two plays later, Jabari Davis crashed across the goal-line to put UT ahead 28-17.
The Bulldogs fumbled the ensuing kickoff and 68 seconds later, Banks found tight end Jason Witten on a throwback pass for a 31-yard TD.
In between Houston's two quick touchdown runs in the second stanza and Tennessee's two quicker TDs in the fourth quarter, Vol defensive tackle Rashad Moore scooped up a fumble — jarred free on a sack of Mississippi State quarterback Kevin Fant by Mondre Dickerson — and rumbled eight yards for a defensive touchdown to put the Vols up 21-7 at the 10:09 mark of the third quarter.
Running behind a physical offensive front that featured two tight ends, Houston accounted for nearly half of Tennessee's 322 yards in total offense. Most of those gains were run over the left side where tackle Michael Munoz and tight end Victor McClure consistently carved out running room.
Tennessee's power running attack helped to compensate for a nearly nonexistent passing game that got a big boost from Banks' two fourth quarter throws. Banks entered the final period connecting on just 1-of-6 pass attempts for five yards. He finished the game hitting 3-of-8 for 90 yards and a touchdown.
"I think the offensive line came out blocking and blocked all day," said Houston of Tennessee's success rushing the ball. "I was just running hard. They gave me nice room and I was trying to hit the seam. We just need to keep pounding the rock."
The Vols finished with 232 yards rushing which is just 17 yards short of their season-high of 249 against South Carolina. Houston surpassed the 100-yard barrier for the third consecutive game and the fourth time this season. His production against Mississippi State was critical to an offense that was without starting QB Casey Clausen, who didn't dress for the contest because of an ankle injury. Knowing that Clausen wouldn't likely be available, Tennessee had planned to win it on the ground and take the pressure off Banks in his first career start.
"We knew that was going to be the case," said guard Jason Respert who returned to the starting lineup after recovering from a shoulder injury. "We practiced that way; got back to our fundamentals and moved the ball."
Tennessee's five touchdowns were more than it had scored in regulation play of any two SEC games this season. As good as it looked for a team that was only averaging 11.25 points per game in its last four outings, the Vols still had to overcome what has become a familiar refrain — penalties, injuries and turnovers.
Mark Jones punt return for a touchdown was called back for holding. UT
fumbled the ball four times against the Bulldogs and lost three. However
Tennessee's defense forced five fumbles and recovered three, including
Moore's recovery for a touchdown.
The play of UT's D was particularly impressive considering it lost free safety Rashad Baker in the first half to a knee injury and outside linebacker Eddie Moore to a concussion. Baker is likely lost for the season with a sprained MCL and Moore will be evaluated further before a determination of his status for next week's contest against Vanderbilt.
Baker is Tennessee's interception leader with five picks and Moore is the Vols leading tackler. If Baker and Moore are ruled out for the game in Nashville, they will represent the eighth and ninth defensive starters lost to injury. And Baker could become the fifth defensive starter lost for the season.
"I'm particularly happy with our defense," said UT's Phillip Fulmer in an interview broadcast by the Vol Network. "Rashad Baker is probably lost for the season. It's doubtful he could get back for a bowl game if we go to one, and I think we will."
Tennessee (6-4, 3-3) became bowl eligible with its sixth win, but needs to prevail in one of its final two games to assure a winning season. Kentucky, which Tennessee closes the season against in Knoxville, beat Vanderbilt 41-21 in Lexington on Saturday. The Wildcats will have two weeks to prepare for a Tennessee team it hasn't beaten in 16 years.
"It's been a heck of a tough year," Fulmer said. "Our kids are disappointed but not discouraged. This was an overall team victory. It wasn't always pretty, but we got the win."
Fulmer hopes the offensive outburst will carry momentum into next week's game against Vanderbilt which presents Tennessee it's last best chance for a winning season.
"We hope a lot of fans will show up next week," he said. "It's always fun to go to Nashville and play at Adelphia, the Coliseum. We played there this year so we know the turf and we're going to try and get win No. 7. The last two games are big for us to try and have a strong finish."
A strong finish would be quite an accomplishment for a team that has often looked like it wouldn't have enough healthy players left to even finish the season.