Although it might seem as though bad footing would affect the play of the offense more due to timing and cuts, the opposite is actually true because defense is all about changing directions, and a defender's alteration of course is dictated by the actions of backs and receivers. Since an offensive player knows where he's going and when he's going to cut, he can adjust while a defender must react.
For a defense that is defined by its speed, the shoddy sod and a potent Irish offense were simply too much to overcome. Talk about enjoying a home field advantage, Notre Dame was as golden as its dome.
Nobody is accusing the grounds keepers of watering the terrain to excess or failing to prepare the field to the best of their ability, but it is interesting to note Notre Dame's scripted plays took full advantage of the conditions with a saturation of screens and misdirection plays to start the game.
Charlie Weis scripted the first 18 plays of the game which gained 140 yards for an average of 7.66 yards per play. The next 49 plays gained 203 yards for an average of 4.17 yards per play. The biggest play among those final 49 was a 73-yard reception by Jeff Samardzija that set up the go ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Samardzija, a tall, talented wideout who looked like Howard Stern on steroids, got open when a UT defender slipped down trying to cover an underneath route about three yards beyond the line of scrimmage. If you take away that play Notre Dame's last 48 plays netted only 140 yards for an average of 2.9 yards. Field conditions also played a role in Zbikowski's 79-yard punt return for a touchdown, although punt placement was a bigger problem for UT.
None of this is to suggest that Notre Dame didn't win fair and square. Instead it's intended to point out just what an uphill fight Tennessee's defense had on its hands against a well-designed scheme that neutralized the Vols' advantage in speed by taking full advantage of field conditions.
And as usual Tennessee's defense got little help from the offense or special teams.
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 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 grade isn't factored into overall defensive score.
DEFENSIVE LINE (93) UT's D-line did an excellent job controlling the run and pressuring the passer. Notre Dame finished with 48 net yards on the ground in 34 carries and Tennessee posted three sacks for 16 yards in losses. The ever improving Jason Hall had seven tackles (six solo) and three stops behind the line of scrimmage and a pass breakup. Jesse Mahelona recorded seven tackles (two solo) including one behind the line of scrimmage. Justin Harrell had two stops for minus yardage including a sack. The front four was forced to pull more reps than usual with Turk McBride going out early after aggravating an ankle sprain and Tony McDaniel missing in action. Tight end Jake Finlayson was even pressed into service and contributed a QB hurry. Another superb performance by Dan Brooks' charges.
LINEBACKERS (84) Omar Gaither and Kevin Simon topped Tennessee in tackles again with eight each. Gaither also added three quarterback hurries while Simon broke up a pass and assisted on a stop behind the line. Jason Mitchell continues to play while hurt and it showed in his tackle total (one). However Marvin Mitchell stepped up with four stops, including a pair for minus yardage. Ryan Karl alertly recovered a lateral for Tennessee's only turnover of the game. Jon Poe had a couple of solo tackles for UT. This was a tough situation for the Vols linebacker corps given the high number of screens and misdirection the Irish employed, but overall it was a solid effort. Depth remains a concern.
SECONDARY (79) Tennessee's DBs gave away a lot of size to Notre Dame's receivers which made coverage tough at times. However the Vols didn't break on the ball as well as they needed to and were unable to get good jams off the line of scrimmage. Inky Johnson was the only UT defensive back to be credited with a pass breakup in the game. He also had a textbook perfect tackle on Samardzija for a 10-yard loss. Jonathan Hefney recorded five tackles and Jonathan Wade had four. Demetrice Morley posted two stops including one for minus yardage. Antwan Stewart also had two tackles. Roshaun Fellows contributed two assists but was beaten for a touchdown and continues to play below expectations. The secondary failed to come up with any interceptions and only has one INT over the last three games.
OVERALL (85) The 41 points scored by the Fighting Irish isn't representative of the play of UT's defense, as Notre Dame scored one special teams TD and one defensive TD. It also had a field goal and touchdown that were set up by Tennessee turnovers. Given the loss of team captain Jason Allen to injury and the lack of support from the offense and special teams, Tennessee's defense has been outstanding. There is a need to create more turnovers, but otherwise the defense gives consistent effort and solid play.
SPECIAL TEAMS (41) Yes, that grade is the same as the number of points Notre Dame scored, and the Vols special teams contributed mightily to that total. Lucas Taylor, who has shown promise as a return man but has issues with ball security, fumbled a kickoff that put UT in a 14-0 hole to start the game. Punting was generally poor in terms of kick placement and coverage was far below par. On the plus side, James Wilhoit hit both of his field goal attempts and David Yancey ran back a couple kickoffs with conviction. Demetrice Morley also got a chance to return kicks and should be given more. He just may be the best return specialist UT has and it's taken eight games to get him into that role.