Mississippi State (6-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) continues its best start since 1999. The Bulldogs led 27-14 at halftime, but the Volunteers rallied to cut the margin to 34-31 by midway through the fourth quarter.
Russell sealed the victory with a 9-yard pass to Malcolm Johnson with nine seconds remaining. The junior quarterback completed 23 of 37 passes and set career highs in completions, attempts and passing yards.
Tennessee’s Tyler Bray completed 13 of 24 passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns. Tennessee lost for the first time in the series since 1994, snapping a six-game winning streak.
Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson had a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The Volunteers (3-3, 0-3) have lost all three games to ranked opponents.
The game was billed as a showdown between Bray and Mississippi State’s veteran secondary, but the duel was slow to materialize.
Bray was just 6 of 12 passing for 58 yards in the first half, throwing one interception on a desperation pass at the end of the second quarter. The Volunteers seemed content to run the ball most of the time, and had quite a bit of success, with 213 rushing yards for the game.
But Bray got going in the second half, connecting on touchdown passes to Patterson and Ben Bartholomew. The 10-yard strike to Bartholomew cut Mississippi State’s lead to 34-31 with 5:22 left.
It looked like Tennessee might rally for win. But Russell never gave Bray the chance.
He guided the Bulldogs down the field during the tense final minutes, connecting on several crucial passes, including two to Chad Bumphis for 10 and 23 yards. Bumphis led the Bulldogs with seven catches for 93 yards.
Mississippi State’s secondary can rightfully say it got the best of Bray in this duel. It was the junior’s lowest passing yards as a starter.
Tennessee cruised down the field on its first drive, using hard-charging runs by Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane and a few well-placed throws by Bray. Neal bulldozed a couple Mississippi State defenders on a 6-yard touchdown run and the Volunteers had an early 7-3.
But the Bulldogs made adjustments. Tennessee managed just 97 total yards in the first half — and only 24 after the opening drive.
Mississippi State built a 27-14 lead by halftime as Russell dissected the Volunteers’ defense, completing 16 of 23 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown. Backup quarterback Dak Prescott even got in on the action, throwing a 13-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Green on a nifty play fake.
Tennessee managed to keep things close thanks to Patterson’s spectacular 98-yard kickoff return. He weaved his way around multiple would-be tacklers on the way to the end zone.
And Patterson was right in the middle of the action again as Tennessee mounted its second-half charge. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound junior turned what looked like a big loss on a running play into a 34-yard gain, reversing the field on Mississippi State’s defense. He also caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Bray to cut Mississippi State’s lead to 27-24 with 4:40 left in the third quarter.