Defense Plays Like Champs

In the aftermath of Tennessee's tremendous triumph over LSU, it's easy to overlook the horrific hole the Vols dug for themselves in the first half at Baton Rouge, but while they did pass the test against the Tigers they didn't ace the exam and there are questions left unanswered.

Former Vol head coach Johnny Majors would have characterized this one as "wild and wooly" and for good reason. Each team had four turnovers and combined for 25 penalties, resulting in 168 total yards. The swing in momentum toward Tennessee's camp was remarkable given the crowd's rabid involvement and the Tigers, seemingly, insurmountable lead. On balance it wasn't a thing of beauty, but it was intense and entertaining.

Moreover, it was a gut check for a Tennessee team that had yet to establish an identity this season. As a result it may well prove to be the turning point, depending on how the Vols build upon the win, beginning Saturday with Ole MIss.

Here's the top to bottom defensive ratings for the Tennessee-LSU 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 and won't be good enough to defeat a quality opponent. 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) This could be the biggest test of the season for a suspect UT secondary, given LSU's quality of personnel, home field advantage and emotional edge. The Vols held LaMarcus Russell and his dangerous stable of thoroughbred receivers to 14 completions for 158 yards and came up with two interceptions, including one by Jonathan Hefney that set up a Tennessee TD at the 2 yard-line and another by freshman Demetrice Morley in the end zone on the final play of regulation. The performance was all the more impressive because the Vols only had two sacks in the contest, plus UT's defensive backs also provided good run support. Jason Allen had a team-high eight tackles from his corner position and forced a fumble. Hefney added five tackles in addition to his key INT while Antwan Stewart and Jonathan Wade had four stops each. Wade also had a fumble recovery and was effective in man coverage. Roshaun Fellows only had an assist and missed a couple of tackles, which could lead to a promotion of Wade to a starting role at cornerback this week.

DEFENSIVE LINE (93) Although Tennessee's D-line only came up with two sacks, it did keep pressure on Russell and helped hold the Tigers' diverse running attack to 98 net yards in 33 carries. This was a breakout game by senior defensive end Parys Haralson who had five solo tackles including two sacks and another tackle behind the line of scrimmage, totaling 21 yards in losses. Jesse Mahelona had three stops including two for losses and provided consistent push in the middle of the pocket. An outstanding performance by Justin Harrell with six tackles as he continues to develop into a force at defensive tackle. Tony McDaniel batted down a pass in his first action of the season while Matt McGlothlin provided some minutes off the bench and a couple of assists. Jason Hall made a tackle behind the line of scrimmage and recovered a fumble. The D-line is Tennessee's strongest and most consistent component in John Chavis' superb stop troops.

LINEBACKERS (90) A solid if unspectacular effort by UT's linebackers led by Kevin Simon, who had seven stops (two solo), forced a fumble and was active in pass coverage. Omar Gaither contributed six tackles with four solo stops and helped set a physical tone for the defense. Jason Mitchell had four stops and kept Russell from making first downs on a couple of scrambles. The Vols didn't get as much production from their reserve LBs as they will need this season. Karl Ryan had a stop on special teams, but no other back-up contributed a tackle for this unit. Still there were no major blown assignments by the linebackers who continue to play consistently.

SPECIAL TEAMS (84) A definite improvement by UT's special teams after the meltdown in Gainesville. The Vols avoided the big mistakes and generally executed well. Lucas Taylor brought some life to the return game with a 20-yard punt return and 45 yards on two kickoff returns, but he nearly fumbled a punt with 23 seconds left in regulation that could have cost Tennessee the game. Britton Colquitt struggled some early but later found his stroke and even contributed a tackle on one punt. James Wilhoit knocked home the tying field goal from 28 yards out with 2:02 left in the contest. He also boomed a couple of key kickoffs into the end zone in the fourth quarter to prevent returns by the dangerous Skylar Green. The only disappointment was Green's 90 yards in five punt returns, including a 27-yard effort. He also had a 36-yard kickoff return. The damage could have been greater if not for a couple of penalties against LSU for blocks in the back.

OVERALL (93) The defense only surrendered 20 points and the first touchdown was set up by a Tennessee fumble that put LSU's offense in business at UT's 19. Three other points came on the overtime field goal from an offense that started at the 25. Defense kept UT in the game during a time when it could have easily been overwhelmed. Then the D shutdown LSU in the second half, allowing the offense to find its legs for the first time this season. An explosive Tiger offense was held to 256 total yards in 61 plays. With a more consistent offense the Vols' defense has the potential to be dominating.

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