Mississippi State is far from a dominate opponent but it is a capable club that has gone on the road to defeat Auburn, Alabama and Kentucky in the last two seasons and was coming off a victory of Vanderbilt that knocked the Dores from the unbeaten ranks.
Against any SEC opponent the win would have been impressive and the Bulldogs undoubtedly qualify on that count. The question as to whether it's the breakthrough game the Vols need to turn the season around is another matter, but it is encouraging as UT aims for another strong finish.
To reach the level of a breakthrough game it will have to be duplicated in caliber and tenor if not degree and formula. That means low on mistakes, balanced on offense, strong against the run and opportunistic when the ball is in the air.
The return of Britton Colquitt is turning the punt into an offensive weapon and his distance on kickoffs has helped negate opportunities for the dangerous return specialists every team seems to have. Daniel Lincoln had another short range miss against MSU but he made two others field goals.
The offense had coherence, established some rhythm in the second half and the Vols trio of tailbacks took a toll on the Bulldogs' D. Nick Stephens shows steady improvement and appeared more comfortable in the pocket. Of course it helped that the Vols were able to pick up a few blitzes and generally provided better protection. Stephens and Danarius Moore hooked up for their third big play in as many games. The lack of a go-to target at receiver continues to be a role unfilled, a problem that can be exploited by defenses that can pressure out their base scheme without selling out to the blitz. Tennessee made an effort to get the ball to FSU transfer tight end Brandon Warren, but the Vols could look to get him the ball on seam routes or shorter passes on which he has forward momentum. UT's defense stepped up in a big way against the Bulldogs, shutting down the run and picking off three passes. Sliding Robert Ayers to the tackle slot has allowed the Vols to get more mobility on the field and to add another pass rusher on the inside. Sophomores Ben Martin and Chris Walker are pushing for more playing time. Ditto for Gerald Williams. Ellix Wilson and Dan Williams are a couple of former Memphis high school players that are holding their own in the center of the defense. Overall this game is exactly what the doctor ordered — a confidence building win against an SEC opponent that makes the rest of the schedule beyond Alabama look like a potential run as opposed to series of stumbles en route to a losing season.
Here's a breakdown of top to bottom list of units along with grades for their respective performance against Mississippi State.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (9.8) The secondary has led Tennessee every week except for the Georgia contest. The DBs earn the highest mark awarded this season due to three interceptions including two returned for touchdowns. Eric Berry led all UT tacklers with 10.
DEFENSIVE LINE (9.3) After surrendering 62 yards in 1 13-play drive that started the game and ended in a miss field goal, the Vols held MSU to 127 total for the rest of the game thanks in large part to a defensive line that got penetration. UT totaled eight stops for losses and kept the Dogs in bad down and distance situations.
OFFENSIVE LINE (9.0) Probably the best performance so far for UT'S offensive line given the success the Vols had on the ground and that Stephens had some time to go through his progressions. Tennessee's fourth quarter assault was a throw back to the days of pound the rock.
RUNNING BACKS (8.8) Lennon Creer, 17 carries for 63 yards and a TD, got a steady diet of carries and displayed the type of toughness needed to go with his explosiveness. Arian Foster was productive 11 carries for 41 yards and had the Vols longest run at 19 yards.
SPECIAL TEAMS (8.7) A rare good night by UT's special teams particularly Colquitt who punted four times for a 44-yard average, got good height to enhance coverage and gave the Vols a decided field position edge.
QUARTERBACK (8.1) A solid effort by Stephens and even though the stats aren't imposing (10 of 20 for 136 yards), but he's yet to throw an interception in three games as a starter and kept Tennessee's offense out of trouble. He did a good job avoiding pressure and had the Vols second longest run — 18 yards.
LINEBACKERS (8.0) Ellix Wilson has been as consistent as any starter on UT's defense and he had another good outing Saturday with 10 stops. Nevin McKenzie added eight. The drawback at this position is that the Vols are vulnerable against the power run and coverage against the short routes has been spotty.
RECEIVERS (7.4) There's just not enough consistency from the receivers, outside of Moore, in terms of gaining separation or producing big plays after the catch. No receiver made more than two catches and there were no touchdowns. The loss of Gerald Jones restricted the passing game.
OVERALL (8.73) Top to bottom, offense, defense and special teams this was clearly the best performance UT has had in 2008.