Special teams lift Vols past Aggies

Published 12:30 pm Tuesday, October 17, 2023

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Tennessee’s Dee Williams downed a punt on the 1-yard-line and returned the ensuing Texas A&M punt 39 yards for a touchdown to help lift the No. 19/17 Volunteers past the Aggies, 20-13, in front of a sellout Checker Neyland crowd of 101,915 on Saturday afternoon.

Williams’ special teams jewels enabled the Volunteers to grab its first lead of the game with 6:47 to go in the third quarter, 14-10. A pair of fourth-quarter Charles Campbell field goals gave the home team enough points to hold off an A&M offense that was limited to three points over the final 30 minutes by the Vol defense.

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Defensive backs Gabe Jeudy-Lally and Kamal Hadden came up with key interceptions to thwart Texas A&M drives in the fourth quarter and keep the Aggies off the board in the final period.

With a 10th-consecutive packed house at Rocky Top looking on, UT (5-1, 2-1 SEC) rushed for 232 yards against an A&M defensive unit that was allowing only 84.0 per game. Running back Jaylen Wright led all ball carriers with a season-high 136 yards on 19 carries, averaging 7.2 per attempt. It marked his fourth 100-yard effort this season.

The Vols, meanwhile, limited the Aggies (4-3, 2-2 SEC) to only 54 yards rushing on the evening and only one touchdown, matching the lowest total by Texas A&M in any game over the last four seasons. Linebackers Aaron Beasley and Elijah Herring paced the UT defense with five tackles apiece. Edge rusher James Pearce Jr. racked up a sack and five of the Vols’ 11 quarterback hurries. Defensive end Tyler Baron contributed Tennessee’s other sack in the game and added a hurry as well.

After forcing the Vols to punt on their opening possession, Texas A&M grabbed a 7-0 lead with 8:29 to go in the first period. Quarterback Max Johnson took the snap, scrambled to his left to avoid pressure and stretched the ball across the goal line just inside the pylon for a 2-yard touchdown. Randy Bond added the extra point for the only TD the visitors would record on Saturday.

Tennessee evened the score with 1:44 left in the first frame with a six-play, 51-yard drive. Quarterback Joe Milton III rolled to his left, hit Jacob Warren on a flat route and the redshirt senior tight end did the rest with his legs for a 7-yard touchdown to cap the march. It was the second score in as many games for the Knoxville native. Campbell booted the PAT to make it 7-7.

The Aggies moved back in front with 10:59 remaining in the second frame. Bond kicked a 41-yard field goal to give his team a 10-7 advantage that it carried into the intermission.

After a Jackson Ross punt was downed by Williams at the A&M 1-yard line, the Vols’ defense held tough and forced the Aggies into a fourth-and-10 punt situation. Williams took the field again as the deep man, and he finished the job he started with a 39-yard dash to the end zone for the first punt return allowed by Texas A&M since 2017. Campbell’s extra point gave the Vols a 14-10 lead, its first of the game, with 6:47 to go in the third stanza.

Texas A&M responded with a 24-yard Bond field goal to cut UT’s advantage to 14-13 with 3:15 remaining in the third quarter. Bond had a chance to move the Aggies into the lead in the fourth quarter with 8:34 left on the clock, but his 50-yard attempt was wide left.

Tennessee took possession at its own 47 after the missed field goal. The Vols burned 4:46 off the clock before Campbell came on to drill a 31-yarder through the uprights to give his squad a 17-13 lead with 3:48 to go. Campbell tacked on a 24-yarder with 2:31 remaining, boosting the lead to 20-13 after Jeudy-Lally’s interception and 36-yard return to the A&M six.

The Aggies began their final possession at their own 23 with 2:25 to go, but Hadden ended the drive and Aggie threat on a fourth-and-10 pass attempt from Johnson by picking it off at the UT 45.