The victory gave the Vols a 3-4 overall record and their first SEC win in four tries. It also reduced the fan grumbling (for now) and cooled the seat of head coach Phillip Fulmer (for now).
After appearing to be on life support in last weekend's 26-14 loss at Georgia, the Vols seemed rejuvenated vs. Mississippi State. Fulmer touched on this theme by quipping "Not dead yet" as he sat down to begin his post-game remarks.
"Obviously, there's still much to be done," the head man noted, "but this is something I think we can build on. You could feel the confidence of the football team and the energy from the football team – and from the stadium – during the course of the second half. We finally started making plays."
True. Here's a recap of the significant ones:
- A 40-yard kickoff return by Dennis Rogan and a 20-yard pass from Stephens to Austin Rogers set up a one-yard plunge by Montario Hardesty that capped an 11-play, 53-yard touchdown drive that put Tennessee on top 13-3.
- A 45-yard pass from Stephens to Denarius Moore moved the ball to the MSU 17-yard line but the big play was squandered when Lincoln missed a 34-yard field goal.
- Berry intercepted and returned 72 yards for a TD, boosting the lead to 20-3.
- Morley intercepted and returned 32 yards, widening the gap to 27-3.
Tennessee added an insurance score in the final minutes, marching 51 yards on 12 Lennon Creer carries – the last being a one-yard touchdown run.
Although the Vols were not particularly productive – 139 rushing yards and 136 passing yards – they were uncharacteristically efficient. They converted on 7 of 15 third-down plays, incurred just one penalty and did not surrender a turnover.
"We had no turnovers and one penalty for the evening," Fulmer noted. "If nothing else, that's great progress."
Stephens, making his third career start, finished 10 of 20 passing for 136 yards. He also rushed three times for 17 net yards.
"Nick made some plays running the football, and I wouldn't have bet on that in an SEC football game," Fulmer said. "That tells you a lot about him as a competitor. He continues to manage the game well and he made some really nice throws."
Creer led Tennessee's rushers with 68 yards on 17 carries, while Foster added 40 on 11 attempts.
The star of the show, however, was Berry. In addition to his tide-turning 78-yard interception return, he included a sack among his team-high 10 tackles.
"I tell you, I've never seen anybody like Eric Berry," Fulmer said. "It's amazing what he does when he has the football in his hands and the spirit that he brings to the team."
Tennessee's defense bounced back from a woeful effort at Georgia with a strong showing against a Mississippi State offense that has struggled most of the season.
The Vols limited MSU quarterbacks Tyson Lee (12 of 23, 114 yards) and Wesley Carroll (1 of 7, 6 yards) to a combined 13 of 30 passing for 120 yards with three interceptions. In addition, they held 240-pound tailback Anthony Dixon to 46 net yards on 15 carries.
Tennessee also got another fine outing from Britton Colquitt, in his second game back from a five-game suspesion. After a feeble 26-yard effort on his first punt of the night, he averaged 50 yards on the remaining three to finish with a 44.0 mark for the game.
Although beating a 2-5 Mississippi State team does not suggest that all of Tennessee's problems are solved, the victory at least injected a glimmer of hope into a Vol season that seemed poised on the brink of disaster 24 hours earlier.
"Overall," Fulmer said, "it was just a fantastic win for us."