KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Dee Williams returned a punt 39 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter to put No. 19 Tennessee ahead for the first time and the Volunteers shut down Texas A&M the rest of the way in a 20-13 victory Saturday.
“That’s something I’ve worked hard for all season,” Williams said. “My job is to always stay ready.”
Vols punter Jackson Ross backed up the Aggies to the 1 — with Williams keeping the ball from going into the end zone. The Vols defense followed with a three-and-out setting up Williams for the pivotal return.
“Dee’s punt return changed the game,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “We had 10 guys competing their butts off to get him into the end zone. It was a huge turning point.”
Jaylen Wright rushed for 136 yards for the Volunteers (5-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference). The victory was sealed when Gabe Jeudy-Lalley picked off a pass and returned it to the A&M 6 to set up a field goal.
“It was a game of inches and we didn’t make them,” Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We had a couple critical penalties, a few critical plays, but the kids are playing their hearts out.”
Max Johnson threw two fourth-quarter interceptions for Texas A&M (4-3, 2-2). The Aggies were 5 of 15 on third-down conversions.
“(Tennessee’s defensive front was) in my face,” Johnson said. “I’ve got to make the throws. I have to be better and make the throws.
Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III was 11 of 22 for 100 yards and touchdown — a 7-yarder to Jacob Warren to tie it in the first quarter.
Johnson had a 2-yard scoring run on Texas A&M’s first possession.
“We had to settle down,” Vols defensive end Tyler Baron said. “Once the game slowed down for us, we played the way we were capable.”
The only chance Tennessee had at being effective on offense against Texas A&M was to be productive in the run game. The Vols have three talented ball carriers, but finding a seam in the Aggies’ vaunted defensive front wasn’t easy. Jaylen Wright’s impressive showing caused a lot of problems for Texas A&M. Special teams and the defense sewed up the victory.
Tennessee’s most impressive victory of the season so far will give the Vols some credibility when it comes to taking some steps up the ladder. The early loss to Florida is still a liability as Tennessee is measured on a national stage. Making up for that loss doesn’t happen in a hurry.
Texas A&M: At South Carolina on Oct. 28.
Tennessee: At Alabama on Saturday.