KNOXVILLE (AP) — While Tennessee’s Tyler Bray and Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell are very different types of quarterbacks, they’ve been protected as well as any QB in the Southeastern Conference.
Tennessee and No. 19 Mississippi State have each allowed only three sacks all season, the lowest total in the conference. On the other side of the ball, the schools also have recorded the fewest sacks in the SEC.
Whoever can provide the best pass rush Saturday could go a long way in determining the outcome.
“In the SEC, it all starts in the trenches,” Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio Richardson said. “Whoever wins the line of scrimmage is going to win this game.”
While both teams have given their quarterbacks ample time to throw, Tennessee’s accomplishment is perhaps more notable since the Volunteers have attempted 50 more passes than Mississippi State. Bray leads the SEC with 1,582 passing yards and isn’t afraid of taking chances — sometimes to his own detriment — while Russell generally makes fewer big plays and fewer mistakes.
Tennessee’s offensive line benefits from experience. The Volunteers headed into the season with seven linemen who had combined for 106 career starts. This group has helped give Tennessee the SEC’s top-ranked passing offense while also boosting a rushing attack that ranked among the worst in the nation last season.
Vols coach Derek Dooley said the offensive line’s most recent effort in a 51-44 loss at Georgia was one of the best performances by a Tennessee offensive line since he took over the program in 2010.
“With experience is the physical maturity, the emotional maturity and all the things I talked about a year ago that we weren’t quite there on,” Dooley said. “Physically, we’re able to maintain that kind of hitting for 85 snaps. We’re not breaking as the game goes. Emotionally we’re able to maintain our focus and discipline through 85 snaps. It’s like when you get in a fight and you’re swinging early and you’re hitting, but as the hits keep coming your hands start dropping. Guys who’ve been training and are experienced and are physically mature have a better ability to sustain it. That’s just how it is.”
Dooley watched Tennessee’s practice Thursday from a golf cart after sitting out Wednesday’s session as he recovers from surgery to his fractured right hip. The injury will cause Dooley to coach Saturday’s game from the press box.
Mississippi State’s offensive line isn’t as experienced as Tennessee’s, but it’s been equally effective.
Of the five starters on the Bulldogs’ line, only left guard Gabe Jackson and center Dillon Day made more than four starts last season. Yet they have allowed only three sacks all season while also helping Mississippi State average 4.84 yards per carry. Air Force, Middle Tennessee, Kansas State and Oklahoma State are the only Football Bowl Subdivision programs that have allowed fewer sacks than Mississippi State and Tennessee.
For the first time in the program’s 113-year history, Mississippi State has scored at least 25 points in each of its first five games.
“We’re just sticking to what we’re told to do, trying to be fundamentally sound,” Day said.
The outstanding pass protection by both teams has helped compensate for the fact that neither Tennessee nor Mississippi State rushes the passer very well. Mississippi State has delivered eight sacks this season. The only SEC team to post fewer sacks is Tennessee with six.
Tennessee has allowed 29.6 points per game overall and 44 points per game in SEC competition. The Vols’ penchant for allowing long touchdown runs has received the majority of the blame, but the inability to harass opposing quarterbacks also has played a role. Dooley noted the Vols’ lack of a standout pass rusher this week while discussing the possibility of using nose guard Dan McCullers in more passing situations.
“It’s not like we’re having the sack masters up front,” Dooley said. “We’re not taking any pass-rush specialist out of the game if we put him in.”
Mississippi State’s lack of sacks hasn’t prevented the Bulldogs from playing solid defense. The Bulldogs have allowed just 13.4 points per game to rank 11th nationally in scoring defense. They have yielded more than 14 points in just one of their first five games.
Of course, those numbers could be even better if Mississippi State were mounting more of a pass rush.
“Obviously, do we want more sacks? Absolutely,” Mississippi State defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said. “Saying otherwise would be untrue. But what you don’t ever do is jeopardize your defense” to get more sacks.