"I was thinking we need to go back on Monday and get to work on defense," said end Parys Haralson after the Vols (9-2) surrendered 420 yards to the Commodores(2-9), with 314 of it through the air.
"Vanderbilt made a bunch of big plays and we made a bunch of mistakes. We were surprised it was so close and we know we can and need to play better."
Tennessee defensive back Roshaun Fellows, who stopped the final Vandy drive with an interception on the first play from scrimmage, said he and the Vols got lucky.
"The pass came right at me," Fellows said.
But head coach Phillip Fulmer wasn‚t about to allow his players to ignore winning a title. „All I know is that we‚re Eastern Division champions in the SEC. Not one person picked us. We're young and we've faced lots of adversity. "Did we play our best football tonight? No. We dodged a bullet. I told the team that. We're young and we're banged up. I'd like to have a better killer instinct. There was a point in the game where we should have taken over."
The killer instinct may have been missing on the defensive side of the ball, but the offense discovered a missing and much-needed ground attack against the Commodores.
With only one 200-plus yards rushing game since September, the Vols racked up 236 yards on 38 carries, with tailbacks Cedric Houston and Gerald Riggs putting up 97 and 151 yards respectively. Houston also scored a career-high three touchdowns in the game.
And they did it behind an offensive line that was missing starters Cody Douglas, Jason Respert and Michael Munoz. Douglas may be out for the season. Respert has an infected hand and did not play, and Munoz left with an injury in the second quarter. Enter Richie Gandy, Chuck Prugh and the ever-present Arron Sears to shoulder the load. The difference, Riggs said, was one of attitude, not who was in the game.
"They made blocks. We ran the football. There's a time when a running back has to get physical and break tackles. We did that today," Riggs said. Houston said the cobbled together offensive line "dominated from the start. They told me before the game they were going to dominate the first half, and they did just that."
Fulmer wasn't completely happy with the performance but he was extremely pleased with the way quarterback Rick Clausen, who was making hisfirst start for the Vols, played. Clausen, who was considered the third-string signal caller behind freshmen Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer only a couple weeks ago, hit 19 of 30 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns.
"I'm excited about Rick Clausen," Fulmer said. "It's rather ironic. He started the season competing for a starting position but lost it. He's tremendously unselfish. He stayed the course and you have to give a lot of credit to him."
Clausen in turn credited his receivers and running backs.
"We took care of business," he said. "They came at us with everything they had, but we have the kind of skill players that make a difference. "There was nothing for me to be nervous about. I felt comfortable out there and played a pretty good game."
So did Vandy quarterback Jay Cutler, who ignored UT's vaunted pass rush and sliced and diced the secondary for 314 yards and three touchdowns on 22 of 33 passing. The irony in his case came with two fumbles he coughed up in the first half, both of which led to UT touchdowns. Without those miscues, the Commodores may not have needed a final 80-yard drive to win the game.
"I was pleased with our efforts but not our results," Vandy coach Bobby Johnson said. „Our guys believed they had a chance to win. That's what you need in a game like this -- a rivalry game -- for our program to step up and put some pressure on the other team. I think we came a little closer."
A lot closer, if you ask the Vols.
"I had faith in the defense," Clausen said.
But it's going to take more than faith and a defensive performance like Saturday's to win an SEC title in two weeks.