It was a weird and wild night on Rocky Top.
Tennessee was unable to score on a last-second drive and dropped a 31-26 decision to No. 13 Ole Miss on Saturday night inside Neyland Stadium.
“Those were two good football teams who played hard tonight,” Tennessee Head Coach Josh Heupel said. “Unfortunately, we got the short end of the stick. I talked to our guys in the locker room and was disappointed because didn’t think we played smart enough in all three phases of the football game. We didn’t play smart enough to make the plays that were there for us and beat ourselves in some way. I’m not taking anything away from Ole Miss, that’s a really good football whose quarterback is a special player.”
The game featured two quick-paced offenses that combined to run 180 plays in a game that took four and a half hours to complete.
The game was marred by a lengthy delay with 54 seconds remaining as a select group of fans pelted the Shield-Watkins Field playing surface with trash – everything from drinks, bottles, a golf ball, and even a bottle of mustard.
The incident came after a Tennessee was ruled short of the first down on a fourth-down, and the play was not overturned by replay despite looking like Jacob Warren had made the line of gain.
“Player safety is one thing you are always worried about,” Heupel said. “How are you going to finish the football game. The situations that are coming up defensively and offensively. I said it at the beginning, I am disappointed that will be the story from this football game from a small amount of our fans because there were so many that represented intensity in a great way tonight.”
“I just wanted to play,” Ole Miss Head Coach Lane Kiffin said. “The players have helmets. It’s the coaches that are going to get hit. I’ve still got my souvenir golf ball that I got hit with. I just said, ‘put the helmets on and let’s play.’ Really, the Tennessee people were taking care of us. I think David Elliott was over there saying, ‘we’re worried more about the players than anything else., even the Tennessee people.’ That was really cool to see that part of it.”
After the delay, Tennessee’s defense went to work and forced Ole Miss off the field and saved the clock by using three timeouts.
“We were just talking about the situation, and that there is an opportunity and we need to go play,” Heupel said of what he told the team coming out of the delay. “Here is what you can anticipate and what is going to be called. Let’s go out and execute.”
Velus Jones Jr. returned the ensuing punt to midfield, and Hendon Hooker gave the Vols a spark with a 14-yard run on the first play of the drive. Hooker, however, was injured on the play and had to be helped off the field.
Hooker finished the game with 108 rushing yards on 23 carries, while going 17-of-26 for 233 passing yards.
Joe Milton entered the game in relief after the Hooker injury and immediately hit Walker Merrill to get the Vol offense to the Ole Miss 21. Tennessee narrowly missed Cedric Tilman in the endzone and Milton was unable to score on the last play of the game.
The Ole Miss offense was led by a Heisman candidate in Matt Corral – who rushed for 195 yards on 30 carries, while also going 21-of-38 with 231 yards. Corral finished with two touchdowns and also threw his first interception of the season in the fourth quarter.
“Some of it is twist game.,” Heupel said when asked about defensive adjustments to try and contain Corral. “Some of it is awareness. Some of it is based on call and situation. He is a good player, and he puts you in a dilemma. Some of those plays were broken plays. Seeing what they were running on that side of the football, RPO option. The run wasn’t there, the throw wasn’t there, and he broke contain and made a heck of a play. He’s a good football player.”
In front of an electric and sold-out Neyland Stadium, Tennessee’s defense forced the Rebels to punt on the opening drive, but the punt was muffed setting up a Snoop Conner touchdown run.
Tennessee’s defense got on the board later in the quarter with a sack in the endzone of Corral. The Vols took the lead with 3:51 remaining in the quarter when Hooker found Tillman for a 16-yard pass.
The Rebels, however, ended the quarter with a 10-9 lead after a 30-yard field goal.
Ole Miss added a 33-yard touchdown pass to their tally early in the second and pushed the lead to 24-9 after Snoop Conner scored from a yard out with 5:30 left in the half.
The Vols, however, ended the half with momentum after Chase McGrath knocked a 39-yard field goal through the uprights after three straight Ole Miss timeouts to ice the kicker.
The Vols trailed 24-12 at the half.
Tennessee closed the gap with a Jabari Small touchdown with a yard-out on the opening drive of the second half and countered an Ole Miss touchdown with a five-yard score from Hooker in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter.
That set the stage for the chaotic ending that saw the Vols nearly take their first win over a top 15 opponent for the first time since November 2018 (vs. Kentucky).
Small finished with 92 rushing yards for the Vols, while Tillman had 84 yards on seven catches. Jones finished with 93 receiving yards.
“I think it’s (the atmosphere been built by our players: there’s enthusiasm, excitement, and belief about the progress that our players are making on the field,” Heupel said. “I’m proud of them for building that, but we’re just starting our journey together. Our fanbase is passionate and prideful just like our players are.”
Tennessee is set to return to action for the Third Saturday in October rivalry game against Alabama in Tuscaloosa.