Photo by University of Tennessee Athletic (@Vol_Football)
By Tucker Harlin
KNOXVILLE, Tenn- No. 19 Tennessee (5-1, 2-1) survived a defensive battle against Texas A&M (4-3, 2-2) 20-13 in Neyland Stadium Saturday. 20 points is the least amount of points the Vols have scored in a game and won in Josh Heupel’s tenure in Knoxville.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in one of these,” Heupel said. “I’m good with it, I like coming out on the right side of it.”
The Vols had plenty of opportunities to score throughout the game, including one at the very beginning of the game.
An offsides penalty on the Aggies gave Joe Milton a free play, but Milton ran out of bounds two yards shy of the marker despite having open space ahead. The Vols were stuffed on their second chance and were forced to punt.
The Aggies marched down the field for the first score of the game. Once the Aggies crossed the 50-yard line, Max Johnson found Noah Thomas down the sideline for a 29-yard completion. Two plays later, Johnson scrambled for two yards to the left corner of the end zone.
“After that first touchdown, we pretty much had an idea of what they wanted to do,” said Tennessee linebacker Aaron Beasley. “I feel like we had control of it. We just needed to play our game, do nothing foolish, and just get off the field.”
The Vols turned the ball over on downs on their next possession, but the defense held strong on the next Aggie possession, forcing a punt.
An egregious Ramel Keyton drop was bailed out by a penalty, and Milton later found Jacob Warren for seven yards and a score, tying the game. It was the first and last time the Vols scored a touchdown on offense.
The Aggies were able to score on their next possession, but they could not reach the end zone. The Aggies entered the red zone, but an unproductive Rueben Owens run, an incompletion, and a sack forced them to kick a field goal. Randy Bond was true from 41 yards out, giving the Aggies the 10-7 advantage they carried into halftime.
The beginning of the second half saw more of the offensive sluggishness that ended the first half. Neither team looked capable of grabbing the momentum.
All of that changed because of the heroics of Dee Williams on special teams. After a Vols possession stalled out at midfield, Williams downed Jackson Ross’ punt at the 1-yard line.
“For the punt, my eyes were on the returner thinking he was going to catch it,” Williams said. “As soon as I saw the ball I thought about making a play on it.”
The Vols forced the Aggies to punt from their own end zone, and Williams took the punt 39 yards to the end zone, giving the Vols their first lead of the afternoon.
“It’s amazing, it’s something I’ve been working hard for all week,” Williams said.
The Aggies worked their way into the red zone on the ensuing drive, thanks to an outstanding reception by Noah Thomas coupled with additional penalty yardage. However, the Aggies were unable to convert on third down and settled for a 24-yard field goal, shrinking the Vols lead to one point.
The Vols were marching down the field once again, but instead of finding a receiver in the end zone, Milton found Aggies defensive back Josh DeBerry. DeBerry returned the pick to the 16-yard line.
“Through all the ups and downs, he continued to fight, compete, and was willing to go out there and play the next play,” Heupel said about Milton. “Offensively, there are things that all 11 and the coaches have to get better at.”
The Aggies had a chance to reclaim the lead, but Randy Bond’s 50-yard field goal attempt was no good. A handful of productive run plays from Jaylen Wright put the Vols in field goal range, and Charles Campbell cashed in on a 31-yard attempt, making it 17-13.
“Confidence and preparation were big things today,” Wright said about the rushing attack, which racked up 232 yards on a stout Aggies front seven. “I want to thank my offensive lineman for sustaining blocks. They have a very good defensive line, we just had a day today.
The Vols secondary slammed the door on the Aggies in the final minutes of the game. A Gabe Jeudy-Lally interception return put the Vols in field goal range once more, bolstering their lead to seven.
Before the Aggies could cross midfield on their final possession, Kamal Hadden sealed the game with another interception. The interceptions were sweeter than usual with legendary Vols defensive back Eric Berry watching from the sideline.
“It was a surreal moment,” Jeudy-Lally said about Berry being in attendance. “He spoke to us Friday and told us we can’t be scared and that we want to go out there and make plays. If they catch the ball it’s alright, you just have to move on to the next play.”
The Vols will head down to Tuscaloosa to take on Alabama in Bryant-Denny Stadium next week. Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m. ET and the game will air on CBS.