Coach John Chavis' unit all but stopped the Irish ground game, allowing only 48 yards on 34 carries, but that wasn't near enough to compensate for a misfiring offense and special teams play that seems to become worse with every outing.
That left the defense surrendering 295 yards through the air to Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn and his corps of receivers, with wideout Jeff Samardzija accounting for 127 yards and one touchdown on seven catches.
"That was by far the best pass rush I've ever seen," Quinn said, but it wasn't good enough to match Notre Dame's 41 points, including a punt return and an interception for touchdowns.
"I thought our team battled, and when we got it back to 21-21, I thought we had us a ballgame," UT head coach Phillip Fulmer said.
"I think the effort was there. We played defense well enough to win. I didn't think the score was indicative of how we played (on defense). We've got to look at special teams. Our coverage obviously has to be better, and we have a young punter who needs to get the ball closer to the sidelines."
Defensive leader Kevin Simon said he continues to be shocked by how this season has played out and feels a lot of responsibility for rallying his teammates each week.
"Big plays killed us in the end," Simon said. "If you'd told me this before the season began, I'd have said you're crazy. You can't put the blame on one person. There were just plays everybody should have made.
"The whole team was up for this game. It was the little miscues we've had all season. I think the defense did pretty well, but pretty well isn't good enough."
Simon says his concern now is keeping his teammates focused on the next game and the one after that.
"I'm worried about this team and what this team's like emotionally," he said. "We're fighting to get bowl eligible. It's pretty much all we have left. We have to fight to get that. It's frustrating."
Linebacker Ryan Karl, who plays on most of UT's special teams and at his linebacker spot recovered a fumbled lateral pass in the contest, said players seem to "have some mental breakdowns or something" each Saturday.
"Special teams in practice is sometimes the best teams out there," he said. "We can't let up now, though. This is an uncharacteristic season for us, and a bowl is still our goal."
Defensive lineman Jesse Mahelona agreed with Simon about big plays making a difference in nearly every Tennessee loss this season.
"That's happened in a lot of games" Mahelona said. "Our mistakes hurt us. Unfortunately, Notre Dame is a good team, and you can't make those kind of mistakes.
"To be honest, with the talent we have on this team, I expected a lot of things. Every day I ask myself what's going on? And I have no answers."
On the offensive side of the ball, sophomore quarterback Erik Ainge's performance was improved despite two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown in the closing minutes. Ainge managed to guide the inconsistent offense to three scores, tying the game before things fell apart for good.
Fulmer credited former offensive coordinator Randy Sanders withcalling most of the passing plays from the coaches' booth, although Ainge said Sanders wasn't calling plays and that they came from Fulmer.
"It was good to get out there and play the game," said Ainge, whodidn't surrender any time to senior Rick Clausen, who led the Vols out of a similar deficit at LSU.
"If we did something wrong, we were going to pay for it. Their(defense) isn't as big and strong as Tennessee's, but they're smart and they make plays."
Fulmer praised Ainge's 13 of 32 passing night, saying: "I think Erik's a real talent. He's a competitor. He doesn't like to throw the ball away and I believe he's going to be a good player.
"He'll learn from (the interceptions). He's just got to learn to seethings well. At times he gets in a bit of a hurry, and at times he does OK."