In short: this was your father's Tennessee vs. Georgia — a hard-nosed, knockdown, grind-it-out gridiron battle in which no quarter was asked for or given. It didn't have the prolific passing performances fans came to expect when Peyton Manning was King of The Hill. It didn't have the running-back relay featuring a stable of stallions like James Stewart, Aaron Hayden and Charlie Garner. It didn't showcase a fleet of high-flying pass catchers as was common when Tennessee was still known as Wide Receiver U.
What it did have was solid tackling, a swarming defense and a host of Volunteers around the football all day long. It also had a late rally and a dramatic ending which underscored the difficulty of winning on the road in the SEC.
Here's the top to bottom defensive ratings for the Tennessee-Georgia game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are average marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but problematical. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. Special teams play have been included with the grades for defense.
DEFENSIVE LINE (98) By far the highest grade recorded by UT's D-line this season as the Vols turned it all around against a Georgia offensive unit that was appraised as much improved by Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt. That's saying a lot, considering UGA beat the Vols 41-14 last season in Neyland Stadium, essentially ending any chance the Vols had of playing in the SEC title game. UT down linemen Jesse Mahelona, Justin Harrell, Karlton Neal and Turk McBride produced four sacks and kept constant pressure on David Greene, who has long been a thorn under the Vols hip pads. They also helped hold Georgia ball carriers to 1.9 yards per carry and without a first down for the entire first quarter. Hall had a career best game with seven tackles (five solo), a pair of sacks and another stop behind the line of scrimmage. Mahelona was a force in the middle, engaging blockers to free Tennessee's linebackers to make tackles and getting after the quarterback. He finished with two sacks, totaling 21 yards, and had another tackle behind the line of scrimmage. McBride (three tackles) filled in well for the injured Parys Haralson, who didn't start but did play. Neal maintained good containment throughout the game and turned Bulldogs running backs inside where there was plenty of help. Most impressive was the manner in which the Vols were able to get off their blocks and get after the quarterback. This enabled John Chavis to drop more players in zone coverage and take away the short throws.
LINEBACKERS (92) Omar Gaither had his best game ever, leading the Vols with eight solo tackles, one assist, a sack and two more stops behind the line of scrimmage. Kevin Burnett finished with three tackles but was around the football a lot and particularly effective in pass coverage. Jon Poe and Jason Mitchell held down the middle and were both tough between the tackles against the run. Poe had three stops and Mitchell had two. More important, Mitchell was there to knock down Greene's pass to the end zone on the game's final play. The Vols need more depth here especially on the outside where no one has yet step up to reliably relieve Burnett and Gaither. Do we need to put an APB out for Daniel Brooks?
SPECIAL TEAMS (85) This grade would be much higher if not for three missed field goals by James Wilhoit, who did hit one from 51 yards out and another from 35, but misfired on attempts from 51, 49 and 40. The redshirt sophomore is reaching the point in his college career where his consistency should be a strength. Had Wilhoit made only one of the three field goals he missed, Tennessee would have kicked the extra point on it's last touchdown instead of going for the two-point conversion, and would have had a 23-14 lead which Georgia couldn't overcome with a last gasp pass. He also had a short kickoff that was returned to Tennessee's 1 yard-line before being returned because of a holding penalty. How much Wilhoit improves down the stretch will go a long way toward determining how good Tennessee can be. The good news was Tennessee's return team stuffing Georgia's fake field goal attempt — a critical play that reflected great preparation and recognition. Kudos to Corey Larkins for hauling Georgia's last kickoff out to the 35 and giving the Vols crucial field position for a Dustin Colquitt punt that pinned the Bulldogs back at their own 13 yard-line. Colquitt averaged 48.0 yards on two punts with a long of 52 yards. Punt returner Jonathan Hefney didn't break anything long runs but he fielded the ball cleanly and got upfield instead of juking in place. He finished with 41 positive yards on five returns which further enhanced the Vols' field position.
SECONDARY (83) Another season-best effort as UT's DBs held Greene to 15-of-34 for 163 yards and no touchdowns. Second-team QB D.J. Shockley was 4-of-6 for 46 yards which all came on one drive. Overall Georgia was 19-of-41 for 209 yards and one touchdown. Getting pressure on the passer made the secondary's job much easier and it delivered with a winning game. The Vols played much more zone than usual and did a great job of breaking on passes and breaking them up. No small achievement given the quality of UGA's receivers and the fact UT rarely plays zone coverage. Hefney had six tackles (five solo) and broke up two attempts. Brandon Johnson and Jason Allen finished with three stops each while Roshaun Fellows had two and Jonathan Wade one. The thing that holds this grade down is the failure of defensive backs to hold on to interceptions or to find balls soon enough to make picks. Johnson didn't see a pass in the flat that he could have intercepted while racing to the intending receiver. Hefney dropped a low throw that should have been picked off. It might sound a little picky to criticize the DBs after making so much improvement in a week's time, but turnover opportunities are too precious to ignore.
OVERALL (91) An outstanding effort by a much maligned unit. Tennessee pursued the football with passion, tackled with mean intentions and created a couple of fumbles by stripping the ball. As UT's defense and special teams go, so go the Vols.