"The offense had been kind of beating us in practice on our team runs and stuff," senior linebacker Austin Johnson said, "so Coach Wilcox really made an emphasis on us coming out with energy. When we got out there, I was making sure our guys had a lot of energy and we were going to go out there and compete. I felt like we did that the first half."
Vol defenders got an assist from the brisk winds whipping around Neyland Stadium that made life tough for Tennessee's passing attack. Tyler Bray completed just 11 of 27 passes for 172 yards with 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions Backup Matt Simms was 4 of 7 for 62 yards and freshman Justin Worley 4 of 14 for 23 yards with a TD and a pick.
"The wind was a little bit of a factor but we can't make excuses about that," junior wide receiver Zach Rogers said. "We've got to come out here and perform every day at our best, and we've got a lot of work to do."
In addition to gusting winds, Tennessee's passing game was frustrated by a ferocious pass rush.
"The defensive line as a whole played really well," sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith said. "Starting with the pass rush, we completely dominated. Everything Coach (Lance) Thompson had talked about in the meetings before - pressure, power moves, being quick off the ball - we hit that exactly to the T. We did really well on pass rushing."
The first-team defense also shut down No. 1 tailback Tauren Poole, who managed just 21 yards on nine carries. Conversely, the second-team defense was shredded by No. 2 tailback Rajion Neal, who rushed 14 times for 152 yards and three TDs, including a 63-yard scoring burst.
"Rajion Neal stepped it up big," Rogers said. "He had some good runs and broke loose. With his elite speed, he can take off with the best of 'em."
Smith certainly was impressed with Neal's performance.
"Rajion Neal is going to be one of those good surprises, one of our secret weapons," he said. "He keeps improving, and Tauren keeps improving. That keeps that competitive spirit at the running back position. I feel like we're going to have two really good backs next year."
Johnson conceded as much, although most of Neal's yards apparently came against second-team defenders.
"Rajion's a fast guy; we've got to keep him on the inside," Johnson said. "With the ones (first-teamers), I felt like the run defense was really good. Our D-line was getting good push. With our twos, we had a little bit of a struggle in the beginning."
Except for containing Neal, Tennessee's defenders apparently did a solid job on Saturday. They even contributed some big plays.
Senior cornerback Anthony Anderson returned an interception 81 yards for a touchdown. Sophomore linebacker Nigel Mitchell-Thornton posted 2 sacks among his 4 tackles and added a 23-yard interception return. Sophomore safety Brent Brewer posted a team-high 6 stops, a tackle for loss, a pass breakup and a 4-yard interception return.
Senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson's 5-tackle performance included 3 tackles for loss, a sack and a hurry. Sophomore defensive tackle Marlon Walls, who missed all of 2010 with a torn Achilles, batted down a couple of passes.