KNOXVILLE — Jacob Warren caught Hendon Hooker’s fourth-down pass near the first down-marker placed on the Ole Miss 40-yard line and came up just short of the 24 yards he needed to keep Tennessee’s drive going with just over a minute left in the game.
Neyland Stadium’s sold-out crowd of 102,455 thought Warren had enough, but the officials spotted the ball about a yard short and replay confirmed the spot.
Before the Ole Miss offense could take the field, a contingent of the home fans displayed their displeasure with the ruling by tossing bottles, cans and more debris onto Shields-Watkins Field, causing a 20-minute delay.
After the chaos settled, Tennessee’s defense forced the Rebels to punt and gave Hooker and the offense one more chance. Hooker put the Vols within striking distance before leaving with an injury, but backup quarterback Joe Milton couldn’t finish the job, allowing No. 13 Ole Miss to escape with a 31-26 win Saturday.
The Vols (4-3, 2-2 SEC) hung tough with the favored Rebels (5-1, 2-1 SEC), leading briefly in the first quarter following a touchdown drive that was set up by a safety after the Tennessee defense got pressure on Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral and forced an intentional grounding call in the end zone.
Hooker found Cedric Tillman for a 16-yard score to put the Vols ahead, 9-7, with 3:51 left in the first quarter, but the Vols didn’t lead again as Corral used his legs to get the Rebels out of several third-down situations, leading the team in rushing with 195 yards and another 231 yards through the air.
Ole Miss scored on a Caden Costa 30-yard field goal to put the Rebels back in front, 10-9, before Dannis Jackson hauled in one of Corral’s two touchdown passes on the night, good for a 33-yard play that extended the lead to 17-9.
Running back Snoop Conner capped off a 12-play, 91-yard drive with a 1-yard rushing score, but Tennessee managed to go into halftime with some momentum thanks to a Chase McGrath 39-yard field goal to bring the score to 24-12.
That momentum carried over into the second half as Hooker led the Vols on a 77-yard drive that ended in a Jabari Small run into the end zone to make it a five-point contest at 24-19, but Corral responded late in the third quarter with his second touchdown pass to Donatario Drummond from 16 yards out.
After Hooker engineered another long drive in the early stages of the fourth quarter and got the payoff with a 5-yard touchdown run, the Vols defense forced Corral into a rare mistake on third down, as he threw an interception to Trevon Flowers.
The turnover was Corral’s first in 233 attempts, the nation’s longest streak to that point, but Tennessee couldn’t take advantage with less than 10 minutes left.
The Vols defense was able to stop Ole Miss on third down with inside two minutes remaining in regulation, but Hooker was sacked twice on the ensuing drive and his pass to Warren was spotted short after replay.
Even after the littering of the field by fans and all the distraction that came along with it, Hooker had another chance with one final drive but was carried off the field following a first-down run to get the offense inside the 25-yard line. Milton overthrew Tillman in the end zone, then scrambled and ran out of bounds with no time left on the clock.