The Vols were slated to face Oklahoma’s new Air Raid system ran by Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, which rolled up 439 yards through the air against Akron the week before in the first game of its implementation.
All eyes were planted firmly on Tennessee’s pass defense, which looked like the team’s biggest question mark heading into Saturday’s showdown with the Sooners.
It looks like those fears have been temporarily assuaged.
The Vols limited Oklahoma to just 187 passing yards and were sparked by two interceptions by sophomore safety Todd Kelly Jr. The pass rush consistently flushed Mayfield from the pocket all night and, for the most part, the secondary held up its end of the bargain.
"I thought they improved greatly from Week 1 to Week 2,” head coach Butch Jones said. “When you look at the competitive aspect of your opponent across the board, Oklahoma's a really good football team. I thought we got back to our style of play. [Todd Kelly Jr.] helped us with taking the ball away with two interceptions. We need to still generate some more turnovers, particularly some balls on the ground. I thought they gave great effort. I thought our technique [was great.] I thought our overall eye-discipline improved.”
Kelly brought the 102,455 inside Neyland Stadium to their collective feet in the first quarter when he picked off a tipped pass on Oklahoma’s first drive. The Knoxville native ended the game with eight total tackles to complement his two interceptions just one week after being hospitalized for four days with an infection after having his tonsils removed.
"First of all, TK brings a level of stability and intelligence in getting us lined up,” Jones said. “TK has great instincts, understands the defense and what we are trying to accomplish. It's important to him. He invests a lot of time, effort and energy into preparing himself for the games. He just brings a comfort level, and he is a good football player. He is always around the football, and that is all instincts. His football instincts kick in."
LaDarrell McNeil, who was ruled out in late August with what Butch Jones described as “neck instability issues”, returned to the practice field Monday. That means he’ll be competing with Kelly for the starting strong safety spot he vacated after going down. McNeil adds competitive depth to a secondary that looks much stronger than its Week 1 performance, especially since Bowling Green has ascended to the No. 1-ranked passing offense in the country by averaging 462 yards per game in the air in the loss to Tennessee and subsequent win at Maryland the following week.
But not everything was positive leaving Saturday’s game, and Jones knows his passing defense will have to continue improving with the SEC schedule on the horizon. For as much as Mayfield was on the run, the Vols managed to sack him only twice and allowed Oklahoma to convert on eight of its last nine third downs.
Despite those fixable mistakes, though, the growth of Tennessee's defense from Week 1 to Week 2 was encouraging as the Vols prepare to hit the meat of their schedule.
"I thought our defense really gave us an opportunity to win the football game,” Jones said. “I thought they performed very, very well. They gave great effort and, again, they got back to our style of play and our Orange Swarm that we talk about. Now we need to continue to grow and elevate that this week."