STARKVILLE, Miss. – Tennessee keeps giving nationally-ranked opponents good games.
The Volunteers still haven't figured out a way to beat one.
No. 19 Mississippi State held on to top Tennessee 41-31 on Saturday night, extending the Volunteers' frustration in Southeastern Conference play.
Tennessee (3-3, 0-3 SEC) rallied from a 27-14 halftime deficit, cutting Mississippi State's lead to 34-31 with 5:22 remaining. But the Bulldogs responded with an extended drive, and Tyler Russell sealed the win with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Malcolm Johnson with nine seconds left.
"We didn't do it today," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "All you can try to do is go to the next one and get over the hump next week. That's how college athletics is — you never know what is going to happen."
Russell's big night helped carry the Bulldogs (6-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) to their eighth straight victory, dating back to last season. He completed 23 of 37 passes, including the final feathery toss to Johnson, who corralled the throw with one hand in the back of the end zone.
"We knew we had to play four quarters," Russell said. "We didn't play as well as we wanted to, but we made plays when we had to."
LaDarius Perkins added 101 rushing yards and a touchdown as the Bulldogs continued their best start to a season since 1999.
Mississippi State only needs to beat Middle Tennessee next week to set up a potential showdown with No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 27 in Tuscaloosa.
The soft-spoken Russell outplayed Tennessee's Tyler Bray, who tried to rally the Volunteers late, but ran out of time. Bray completed 13 of 24 passes for 148 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in one of his least productive games as a starter.
Tennessee (3-3, 0-3) lost to Mississippi State for the first time since 1994, snapping a six-game winning streak. The Volunteers have lost all three games to ranked opponents.
Dooley coached the game from the press box after having surgery on Tuesday to repair a fractured hip. The different vantage point didn't change the frustration.
"We are not very good right now," Dooley said. "You are what your film is."
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 Cordarrelle 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 the 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.
Russell has been at his best in three SEC games this season, completing 66 of 105 passes (62.8 percent) for 782 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions.
Marcus Green caught six passes for 71 yards and two touchdowns.
"We're not a commercial team," Green said. "We just work hard, we grind."
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 Green on a nifty play fake.
Tennessee managed to keep things close thanks to Patterson's spectacular 98-yard kickoff return early in the second quarter. 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.
Tennessee let several good chances to build on that momentum slip away. Byron Moore dropped what looked like an easy interception and Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks stripped Devrin Young to end a drive.
"We say all the time, big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games," Mullen said. "Well, Banks did."
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