Vols Defense Aces Alabama Exam

After the first four games in the 2004 season, Big Orange fans had to wonder how far the Vols could go if they only had a defense. Three games later those same fans are wondering how far the Vols can go without an offense?

That Tennessee has climbed to 6-1, No. 9 in the BCS rankings and into the driver's seat of the SEC East Division without top production from its offense and defense at the same time in a single game is perhaps the greatest wonder of all.

Tennessee beat Alabama because its defense scored as many touchdowns as the Crimson Tide's offense, which was also the same number of TDs scored by UT's offense — one. That's saying something in light of the fact UT's defense had the ball twice while the offenses of Tennessee and Alabama had the ball 13 times each. Take away Parys Haralson's 19-yard fumble return and Alabama wins 13-10.

The good news: if you only have one side of the ball approaching peak performance, it had better be the defense because the ability to consistently score points depends on more variables. A potent offense can be derailed by bad weather and field conditions. It can be hampered by crowd noise and stalled by good schemes. It can be shutdown by bad turnovers and good defenses because good defense almost always get the better of good offenses.

The Baltimore Ravens won a Super Bowl despite one of the League's worst offenses. Tennessee's 1998 offense was pedestrian when compared to its predecessor led by Peyton Manning, first round NFL pick Marcus Nash and true freshman tailback Jamal Lewis, who only played four games for UT in 1998.

Some of Tennessee's recent offensive woes have been due to playing outstanding defenses with an O-line that is beset by injuries and a freshman QB who is learning the ropes. UT has also intentionally taken a low-risk approach on offense, choosing to take pressure off its unseasoned signal caller while placing it on a formidable front seven and a talented, albeit inexperienced, secondary.

When placed in a position that they have had to move the ball, the Vols have responded well. Case in point: UT's 83-yard scoring drive against Ole Miss in the fourth quarter after falling behind on a lead- and momentum-changing interception return for a touchdown. Likewise, UT drove for a go ahead TD after falling behind Alabama in the second quarter of Saturday's game. Those are the only occasions in which the Vols have trailed during their current three-game winning streak.

There's every reason to believe the offensive line is on the mend and Erik Ainge is getting the hang of high-pressure games. For certain, the pressure will not be higher than Saturday in Columbia, S.C.

Here's the top to bottom defensive ratings for the Tennessee-Alabama 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. We have broken down the units this week to offense and defense. Special teams are also included in the defensive grades.

DEFENSIVE LINE (97) Another outstanding effort by a unit playing with a hobbled anchor in Jesse Mahelona. However the hobbled Hawaiian was more than a handful for Alabama as he proved with three tackles including a 15-yard sack and another stop three yards behind the line of scrimmage. His replacement at starting left tackle, Turk "Tiger" McBride, was stellar with seven stops, one sack and a caused fumble in which he pounced across the line on the second play from scrimmage to dislodge the ball that Haralson took to pay dirt. McBride displayed remarkable quickness, athleticism and tenacity in his first start at tackle. How would he be teamed with Mahelona instead of playing defensive end? It's something the staff will probably look at, especially on passing downs. Tony McDaniel and Karlton Neal had two three tackles each while Jason had two. Haralson and Harrell finished with one stop each. Alabama's conference best rushing attack was held to 105 net yards on the ground and 2.7 yards per carry. The Tide finished with a mere 218 total yards of offense. With veterans like Neal, Hall and Haralson at defensive end and McDaniel, Mahelona and Harrell at tackle, McBride is a swing lineman who adds depth at two positions and gives the Vols a solid seven-player rotation in the defensive line. This is the third straight season the Vols have essentially rebuilt the D-line from the ground up which makes the outstanding play of this group of trench men all the more amazing. How much better would they have been with Greg Jones and Demonte Bolden in the mix?

SECONDARY (94) UT's DBs take the prize for most improved unit this season, overcoming four straight suspect performances with three strong outings. This one was completed without starting strong safety Brandon Johnson who was suspended. Again, the Vols had players step up and take up the slack. Redshirt freshman Jerrod Parrish drew his first start and finished with seven stops (five solo) and true sophomore Corey Campbell came up with the game-ending INT. Junior free safety Jason Allen, who is playing All-American quality football, amassed a game-high 15 tackles (10 solo) with a pass breakup. Allen's hard-nosed style gives UT's secondary an imposing identity that is catching on. True freshman corner Jonathan Hefney contributed eight solo tackles with one quarterback hurry and a pass breakup. Hefney cut down Bama's Tim Castille on a swing pass with a vicious lick that sent the fullback to the sideline late in the game. Fellow freshman Roshaun Fellows was tested early and often at his corner position and surrendered Bama's biggest gain on a 22-yard completion. However Fellows recovered to breakup a pair of passes and added four tackles. Corey Larkins saw service in the secondary but Jonathan Wade has seen his PT reduce dramatically.

LINEBACKER (90) Finally, injury free and fully feeling his oats, Kevin Burnett has become the big-time linebacker Tennessee coaches and fans have always believed he would be. Burnett had 11 tackles (seven solo), including a tackle three yards behind the line. One of the game's defining plays came in the second half when Burnett blasted Bama QB Spencer Pennington as he released a pass and Jason Allen applied a sinus-clearing blow to receiver Ezekial Knight on the other end to force a punt. Burnett is the team's enforcer and a player opposing offenses must constantly account for as a threat. Omar Gaither, who had seven tackles vs. Alabama, is a rising star at the other outside linebacker with sharp instincts and a nose for the football. The combo of Jason Mitchell (four tackles) and Jon Poe (two tackles) are holding down the middle with solid play. This rotation lacks the versatility and athleticism of a Kevin Simon (knee injury) but is tough enough between the tackles. Tennessee still needs another young linebacker to step up his game and shore up the Vols depth as a four-linebacker rotation is decidedly shallow.

SPECIAL TEAMS (85) There was a lot to like about UT's special teams play against Alabama, particularly Derrick Tinsley's terrific 45-yard punt return that set up the Vols' only offensive touchdown. Kick and punt coverage was also very good against Bama's dangerous return game. James Wilhoit hit his only field-goal attempt, a 40-yarder, and averaged 61.5 yards on four kickoffs. This score drops because of a holding penalty on one punt return and another off day for Dustin Colquitt who averaged 40.4 yards on seven boots. He was bailed out a couple of times with fortuitous bounces but an 18-yard clunker before the half left Alabama in scoring range. Colquitt, who admits to being in a slump, is vital to the Vols' conservative strategy and will be needed in top form down the stretch.

OVERALL (92) Another championship outing by a rugged defense that is gaining in confidence and cooking up a cogent chemistry.

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