Vol D on shutout spree

You probably didn't realize this, but Tennessee's defense has not allowed a point in its last three regular-season games. The Vols closed the 2002 season with 24-0 shutouts of Vanderbilt and Kentucky before suffering a 30-3 Peach Bowl loss to Maryland. The Big Orange stop unit extended its regular-season goose-egg run to three games by holding Fresno State without a point in the 2003 opener. (The Bulldogs' TD came on an interception return.)

The Vols will be looking to extend their streak of regular-season shutouts to four this Saturday against visiting Marshall. Needless to say, the odds are against them.

''It's difficult to get a shutout these days because people are doing such a good job on offense,'' UT defensive coordinator John Chavis said. ''When you start looking around the country -- it doesn't matter who you're playing -- they're going to have some guys who can break plays and make plays. It's difficult to get a shutout. Any time you can do that, it's special.''

One reason Tennessee managed to shut out Fresno was the inexperience of the Bulldogs' offensive line. Their top two offensive linemen were injured, leaving just eight blockers -- only one of whom had ever started a college game.

That won't be the case this weekend. Marshall's blocking wall is older and more experienced, much like the Southeastern Conference lines the Vols will be facing once league play begins. So, the Thundering Herd blockers will provide a much stiffer challenge than Fresno's did.

''They moved their right tackle to left tackle and they bring that side of their line back,'' Chavis said. ''They've got a big, physical tight end. The two guys who didn't start for them last year are big and look the part. It'll be a lot closer to what we're used to playing than we played last week.''

Although some of UT's defensive success in Game 1 can be credited to Fresno's inexperience upfront, the Vol stop unit did some very good things, nonetheless.

''We played with great leverage,'' Chavis said. ''We didn't have people out of position, we tackled well and we pretty much played with great effort.''

Also, the return of two linebackers who missed most of the 2002 season due to injuries, Kevin Burnett and Kevin Simon, significantly upgraded the overall speed of UT's defense.

''We knew we had good speed,'' Chavis said. ''It boils down to reaction. We have some young guys who aren't playing fullspeed yet because they're thinking a little bit. But that first group cut loose and played. They did a tremendous job for us. Now we need to get that next group to where they can go out and play at that level.''

Although he's pleased with what he saw in Game 1, Chavis knows that his troops have not been truly tested.

''What you've got to do is see how they respond when they get hit right in the mouth because that's going to happen. It's football,'' he said. ''We didn't get hit in the mouth Saturday. But that's going to happen ... probably going to happen this week. I think the big key will be how we respond to that.''

Asked how Marshall's offense compares to Fresno's, Chavis replied: ''There are a lot of similarities in terms of having good skill people, good receivers, and a quarterback who's been in the system enough to get outside the pocket and do some things.''

Like Fresno State, Marshall relies heavily on the screen pass. In fact, the Thundering Herd probably will utilize it even more than the Bulldogs did last weekend.

''We thought we'd see a few more screens this past Saturday,'' Chavis conceded. ''The ones we saw early we played well and we didn't see any more until late in the game. They (Thundering Herd) make you play the entire field. Every screen you can imagine is in their package. They make you prepare for a lot, and they're going to run the football. But when you look at Marshall, their passing game helps them set up their run game.''

The Vols rely heavily on a reckless and aggressive style of defense. The screen pass combats this by drawing pass rushers to the quarterback, then dumping the ball over their heads. This often makes pass rushers more cautious on subsequent plays.

''That's the offensive design to beat pressure defenses -- to slow you down and make you play on your heels,'' Chavis said. ''But we can't allow that to happen. We've got to go out and play like Tennessee. We'll pick and choose when we do what (blitz all-out or drop back in coverage).

''Sometimes it's a roll of the dice. Sometimes they've got the right play called and you've got the pressure, so they've got an opportunity (to break a big play).''

When Chavis rolls the dice, though, he usually wins. That's why his troops are riding a string of three consecutive regular-season shutouts.


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