Behind a solid defensive effort, bowl eligibility isn’t out of the question for the Volunteers.
Tennessee forced two turnovers and rode John Kelly’s two touchdowns in the second half en route to a 24-10 victory against Southern Mississippi during Homecoming at Neyland Stadium Saturday night.
It was a much-needed win for the Vols (4-5), who snapped a four-game skid and record their 12th consecutive win against a nonconference opponent.
“I’m excited for our players and proud of our players,” said Tennessee head coach Butch Jones. “Getting to sing that special fight song in the locker room when they’ve worked so hard and finally get an opportunity with all of the hard work that they’ve put into it to experience victory.”
Tennessee made quick work on their opening drive against the Eagles (5-4) after, marching 49 yards on nine plays with quarterback Jarrett Guarantano scoring on a 3-yard keeper. An Aaron Medley point-after kick moved the Vols ahead 7-0 with 10:59 left in the first quarter.
Vol kicker Aaron Medley helped the cause in the second, booting a 38-yard but the Eagles matched with their own kick to keep the score within a possession 10-3 at half.
Defense paid dividends in the second half on back-to-back occasions.
Tennessee defensive back Emmanuel Moseley picking off a Keon Howard pass to set up tailback John Kelly with a 20-yard run. On the following possession, Darrell Taylor would force a fumble, picked up by Rashaan Gaulden, who led the team with nine tackles, which resulted in another Kelly score from three yards out.
“If you look at the game situation football, our defense did a good job of taking the ball away two times,” Jones said. “Offensively we were able to turn it into 14 points. We were four-for-four in the red zone, three of those being touchdowns. That’s what it takes to play winning football. We held them without a touchdown until about 6:45 left in the game. We knew they were an explosive offensive football team averaging 263 yards throwing the ball. We were able to hold them to 160 yards.”
It was a rough night of sorts for the offense. Guarantano missed a portion of the second quarter and the entire second half with an ankle injury, with freshman Will McBride losing his redshirt and playing the game in relief of the freshman quarterback.
Kelly (20 carries, 79 yards) had nothing but praise for his blockers. Saturday was Kelly’s first game back since missing last week’s Kentucky contest due to a one-game suspension.
“With those younger guys going in there and making their first start today, it really gave them some confidence,” he said. “Once we were calling some plays toward that way, we weren’t trying to hide them at all. We knew that they were going to go out there and do their job the way that we needed them to do. I’m glad that I was able to score behind those guys. I was glad to just go out there and play for those guys. I’m glad to just be back.”
Offensively, the Eagles outgained Tennessee 279-210.
Tennessee will look to get back to .500 next week with a road trip to face SEC East rival Missouri, who are coming off a blowout victory against Florida.
“We have another great challenge. We’re playing one of the hottest teams in college football right now, Missouri, going on the road,” Jones said. “As we all know great, great quarterback, great receivers, (and they) can run the football. They’re playing good defense, and going on the road for another 7:30 night game is going to be a challenge. It’s a lot easier to prepare coming off a victory, and these kids have worked so hard. They’ve not let any of the clutter or distraction or anything affect internally what goes on in the Anderson Training Center every single day.”