On a night that Tennessee honored the legendary Eric Berry, it was only fitting that the Volunteer defense stole the show.
With a struggling offense, the defense along with a pair of special teams plays from Dee Williams powered Tennessee to a 20-13 victory inside a checkerboard Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
“Fitting on a day that Eric Berry is recognized for going into the Hall of Fame, that we have the type of defensive performance that we did,” Tennessee Head Coach Josh Heupel said. “Honoring one of the best that has come through here and one of the best that has ever played the game. It was a tough game, fun game, and I love the resilience of our football team.”
With Tennessee trailing 10-7 midway through the third quarter, Williams downed a punt inside the Texas A&M 1 and returned the ensuing punt 39 yards for the touchdown to give Tennessee its first lead of the afternoon.
“Huge -One we down it. Dee right, downs it,” Heupel said. “Sets up the defense, the defense goes out there and handles their business. Does a great job on their zone concepts and smash it in the mouth. We do a great job, Coach Ek with that return unit. Dee does a great job making a play, but you got 10 guys competing their butts off to get him in the endzone.”
“That’s a huge momentum swing play. You know, offensively, we had gotten the ball in the plus side of it and hadn’t gotten anything out of it there in the last couple of drives, so a huge turning point in the ball game.”
The Vols never trailed after that point.
After Texas A&M opened the scoring with a two-yard touchdown from quarterback Max Johnson on their opening drive, Tennessee evened things up when Joe Milton III hit Jacob Warren for a seven-yard touchdown pass late in the opening quarter.
Randy Bond hit a 41-yard field goal early in the second, and the Aggies held a 10-7 lead at the half.
Texas A&M pulled within one point going to the fourth quarter, but Charles Campbell hit a pair of field goals to get a little breathing room.
The Aggies’ final drive was stalled on fourth down in the final minute when Kamel Hadden jumped in front of an A&M pass and secured the win.
“You know, really, the first drive after that they played really pretty dialed-in football,” Heupel said of the Tennessee defense. “Gap integrity, did a good job in the run game, got after the quarterback, you know the mixture of our coverages. We were in the right place at the right time. They hit a couple play actions, but all in all just the physicality, the effort, the strength, and playing smart football. You put that together and it’s a great performance by those guys today.”
On a day the offense struggled to find the endzone, the Tennessee running game still had a strong night.
Jaylen Wright finished with 136 yards on 19 carries, while Jabari Small had 12 carries for 42 yards.
Coming into Neyland, the Aggies had allowed just 84.0 rushing yards per game.
“Great job, Glen Elarbee, Alec Abeln and Jerry Mack,” Heupel said of the running game’s performance. “Real credit to them in what we did in the run game tonight. Credit to O-line, tight ends and running backs too. Huge part in the football game. They are really good against the run. They are really good at attacking the quarterback, and we had some efficiency. We were obviously capable of doing some more things than we did tonight, but the run game part of it, the scheme and our guys executing some of it at times, that was really really good.”
While the running game had a solid day, the passing game struggled as Milton III went 11-of-22 for 100 yards and a touchdown.
Chas Nimrod was the lead receiving with four catches for 31 yards.
“Through all the ups and downs, continue to fight and continue to compete,” Heupel said of Milton. “Continue to be willing to go out there and play the next play. That is where it starts as a competitor. Love that part of it. There are things that offensively, all 11, we’ve got to get that, coaches included.”