The Vols (2-4, 1-2) snapped a six-game skid against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents that had begun last November. A change in gear helped provide the reversal of fortune: Tennessee wore orange pants for the first time since a 49-36 victory over Kentucky on Nov. 12, 2016.
Jarrett Guarantano replaced an injured Maurer late in the first half and hit 6 of 7 passes for 106 yards, including a game-clinching 39-yard completion to Tyler Byrd with 2:35 left.
After Mississippi State (3-3, 1-2) cut Tennessee’s lead to 13-10 on Garrett Shrader’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Deddrick Thomas with 8:27 remaining, the Vols drained much of the clock and eventually scored a touchdown of their own.
Byrd caught a Guarantano pass about 2 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, headed to his left and raced down the sideline into the left corner of the end zone for the senior’s third career touchdown catch.
Tennessee’s Tim Jordan added a 15-yard touchdown run and Brent Cimaglia kicked field goals from 49 and 22 yards out.
That was more than enough for Tennessee’s defense.
Hill entered the day averaging 119.2 yards rushing per game but Tennessee limited him to 13 yards on 11 carries. It was the second straight game in which he was held below 50 yards after he exceeded the 100-yard mark in his first four games.
Tennessee’s defense also recorded seven sacks. The Vols entered the day with just eight sacks all season, matching Vanderbilt and Texas A&M for the lowest total of any SEC team.
That enabled the Vols to overcome the loss of Maurer, who was making his second career start.
The Vols led 7-3 when Maurer dove at the end of a 13-yard run and landed headfirst late in the second quarter. The freshman quarterback grabbed the back of his neck immediately after the play.
Maurer stayed in the game the rest of the series and eventually threw an interception but didn’t return afterward. He wound up 4-of-7 passing for 61 yards and two interceptions.
One week after losing his starting job, Guarantano stepped in for the injured Maurer and helped preserve the lead.
Tennessee focused mainly on running the ball with Guarantano in the game. The Vols could afford to stay cautious on offense because their defense was suffocating Mississippi State.
Mississippi State quarterback Tommy Stevens was benched in favor of Shrader after the Penn State graduate transfer went 6-for-11 for 67 yards with two interceptions in the first half.
Shrader hit 5 of 10 passes for 79 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He also ran for 62 yards on 13 carries.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs need to figure out their quarterback situation as they head into the toughest part of their schedule. Three of their next four games are against No. 5 LSU, No. 24 Texas A&M and No. 1 Alabama. Their lack of a consistent passing game is starting to hamper Hill because opposing defenses know they can focus on trying to stop the run.
Tennessee: The good news for the Vols is that their defense appeared to come of age Saturday and lived up to the expectations that accompanied former Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s arrival as head coach. The bad news is that linebacker Henry To’o To’o received a targeting penalty in the second half, which means one of the Vols’ top defenders must sit out the first half of their game next week at No. 1 Alabama.
Mississippi State hosts No. 5 LSU on Saturday.
Tennessee visits No. 1 Alabama on Saturday.