KNOXVILLE (AP) — There was some improvement. It still wasn’t a win, though, and that’s what matters most to Tennessee.
Playing with a backup quarterback, the Volunteers ran successfully against one of the nation’s top rushing defenses and found ways to limit a productive LSU offense in their 38-7 loss to the top-ranked Tigers on Saturday.
“We did some good things out there that I was really proud of,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “As bad as our running game has been, we ran the ball pretty good against a great defense. We just didn’t get a whole lot of opportunity the second half.”
After losing a combined 29 yards rushing in losses to Florida and Georgia, Tennessee (3-3, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) gained 111 yards against the nation’s fourth-best run defense in LSU, which entered the game limiting opponents to 69.2 yards on the ground.
The ground game helped keep the Vols from falling apart during the first half. Matt Simms, who made his first start in place of an injured Tyler Bray, threw his second interception midway through the second quarter.
Tennessee’s defense held LSU after the pick, and the offense put together an 80-yard drive.
Simms threw a 44-yard pass to Da’Rick Rogers, who dragged LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu the last 10 yards of the play, and Tauren Poole covered 28 yards on seven plays before punching the ball into the end zone on a 2-yard run that cut the Tigers’ lead to 14-7 with 2:24 left before halftime.
“We have had problems in the running game, but we just tried to put it on our back as an offensive line, hit them in the mouth and try to build momentum,” Tennessee offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James said. “We left the first half with some momentum. We need to keep pushing each other and execute in the second half.”
But Tennessee couldn’t overcome a few big mistakes that helped the Tigers (7-0, 4-0) grab a lead, and Simms struggled against their bruising defense. He finished 6 of 20 for 128 yards and two interceptions in place of Bray, who broke his thumb last week against Georgia.
The Vols had crossed midfield midway through the second quarter when Simms connected with Rajion Neal on a 38-yard pass that was ruled out of bounds but overturned on review. On the next play, Simms aimed deep for Rogers but hit LSU’s Morris Claiborne instead.
“I played terrible, simple as that. Terrible,” Simms said. “I was looking forward to this game, but both interceptions in the first half were just terrible decisions.”
Claiborne returned the interception 89 yards, but Zach Rogers caught up with him at the Tennessee 5. It was LSU’s longest non-scoring interception return ever and longest return overall since Greg Jackson’s 100-yarder in 1988 against Mississippi State.
On second down, Jarrett Lee hit Rueben Randle for a 5-yard touchdown to give the Tigers a 7-0 lead with 14:56 in the second quarter.
Tennessee started the next drive on its own 11 and went backward. Odell Beckham Jr. returned Michael Palardy’s 42-yard punt to the Tennessee 36.
On third-and-11 at the Vols 13, Tennessee blitzed and Lee lobbed a screen pass to Spencer Ware, who went 13 yards for a score to give LSU a 14-0 lead with 10:01 remaining in the second quarter. Drew Alleman tacked on an 18-yard field goal with 15 seconds left before halftime.
Lee finished 10 of 14 for 115 yards, Jordan Jefferson had 73 yards rushing and a touchdown on 14 carries and Randle had 86 yards receiving and a touchdown. Michael Ford and Russell Shepard also ran for scores.
Aside from LSU’s 99 yards on interception returns, the teams played almost evenly through the first half, but LSU’s many weapons on both sides of the field got to be too much for the Vols after halftime. LSU finished with 383 yards to Tennessee’s 239, picked up 13 more first downs and held the ball over 16 minutes longer than the Vols.
Ware ran 1 yard for a touchdown to make it 24-7 with 7:53 left in the third quarter.
LSU has won four straight and five of the last six against Tennessee, which includes two victories at the SEC Championship.
It marked a departure in the series between the two teams in which three of the last four games have been decided by a touchdown or less, including last year’s bizarre finish in Baton Rouge when LSU scored the winning touchdown after the game was extended by a Tennessee penalty for too many men on the field.