UT's Defense Makes the Grade

Notre Dame's second possession of the game covered 80 yards in seven plays and accounted for the Fighting Irish's only offensive touchdown. Noter Dame ran 51 other plays in the game and produced only 136 yards.

In retrospect, one of the game's most important plays took place in that drive which started off with a pair of three-yard gains, followed by a five yard penalty that put the Fighting Irish in a third-and-nine situation at their own 21 yard-line. Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn completed a pass for 12 yards and a first down to Maurice Stovall, giving his team one of only three conversions in 14 third-down chances. From there, Notre Dame put together gains of 18, 32, 9 and an 8-yard touchdown pass from Quinn to tight end Anthony Fasano.

Obviously, it was a good game for UT's defense but you can't help but wonder what happened on that scoring drive that ate up yards in such large increments.

Here's the top to bottom defensive ratings for the Tennessee-Notre Dame 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.

SECONDARY (95) After a spotty effort against South Carolina, Tennessee's secondary rebounded with one of its best games of the season by holding a big, athletic group of Notre Dame wide receivers in check. Brady Quinn completed just 12-of-23 passes for 118 yards. Tennessee allowed only four completions of 10 yards or more with a long of 29. Jason Allen had another standout game from his safety post, recording 10 tackles (six solo) with a pass breakup. Freshman corner Jonathan Hefney finished with five tackles and a pass breakup while his freshman counterpart, Roshaun Fellows, had a couple of tackles and broke up a pair of passes. UT's young corners are progressing nicely and this position should be a Tennessee strength next season with the return of Antwan Stewart and the development of Jonathan Wade adding depth. Kudos to redshirt junior Robert Boulware, who drew the first start of his career at strong safety and had a solid outing with four solo tackles. Considering injuries and the suspension of Brandon Johnson, UT's secondary has done an excellent job to hold it together this season.

LINEBACKERS (92) Tennessee's linebackers were active and around the football throughout the game. Kevin Burnett led the Vols with 11 tackles (seven solo), a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry. Burnett also turned in one of the season's most dynamic defensive plays when he hurdled a blocker and forced a quick throw. This is easily Burnett's best season at Tennessee and his decision to return for a fifth year will likely pay big dividends in April's NFL Draft. Jason Mitchell had four tackles and a QB hurry while Omar Gaither had three solo stops and one assist. Depth remains a concern.

DEFENSIVE LINE (87) Jesse Mahelona was a one-man wrecking crew with six solo tackles, one sack and five stops behind the line of scrimmage for a total of 13 yards in losses. Despite playing most of the year on a shaky knee, Mahelona has been a dominating force up front and is a sure bet to earn All-SEC honors. Defensive ends Karlton Neal and Turk McBride each had a sack. Parys Haralson contributed three tackles while sophomores Tony McDaniel and LaRon Harris recorded a tackle each. The D-line didn't get consistent pressure on the passer but the unit was lifted by the inspired play of Mahelona.

SPECIAL TEAMS (76) The kicking game was sound with James Wilhoit hitting both of his field goal attempts and Dustin Colquitt averaging 42.5 yards per punt with a long of 59 yards. But Colquitt's last punt was only 32 yards and it didn't pin Notre Dame back when the Vols desperately needed to. In fact, he only had one punt inside Notre Dame's 20. In 2003, he routinely forced offenses to go the long way and was a genuine weapon when it came to flipping field position. However this grade gets its biggest deduction for a return game that is virtually nonexistent. Corey Larkins returned three kickoffs for a total of 32 yards with a long of 12 yards. He has yet to show that he can take the ball upfield and hit the wedge with some momentum. Derrick Tinsley has helped UT's punt return game but is now out for the season. When you play as many close games as UT has this season, it's imperative to win the kicking game.

OVERALL (90) It's hard to argue with a defense that gives up 10 points and 218 yards. The two things that keep this score from being higher were the ease in which Notre Dame scored it's only offensive touchdown and the fact the Vols didn't force any turnovers.

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