Vols' D Makes Last Stand

Save for a bad start and a bitter end, Tennessee played dominate football against an explosive Vanderbilt offense led by senior gun slinger Jay Cutler on Saturday. In other words: when it was good it was very, very good and when it was not it was horrid.

Vanderbilt scored 21 points in under 22 minutes to open the contest, as Cutler sliced up UT's secondary like a skilled surgeon, hitting on 13-of-19 passes for 207 yards and two TDs. Add his 3-of-3 for 63 yards and a TD from Vandy's last gasp game-winning drive and he was 16 of 22 for 270 yards and three scores during those couple of segments of the contest. During the 36:36 in between, Cutler was held to 11-of-17 for 94 yards and no TDs.

The one-dimensional Dores weren't moving the ball on the ground either, as they finished with 49 yards in 28 attempts, running delays and showing a little option. That 1.8 yard average doesn't sound significant, but it did slow down the Vols' pass rush while producing five first downs and a touchdown. It was enough of a contribution to tip the outcome to Vanderbilt.

The Vols played pretty soft in the beginning, allowing a lot of cushion on the receivers and counting on the down four to pressure Cutler. Once they stepped up the tempo, the Commodores lost the rhythm that made them so effective early.

On the game-winning drive, it was more a case of superb execution by Vanderbilt which got what it had ultimately played for — a chance to put the ball in Cutler's hands in the final two minutes with the game on the line. He proceeded to put the ball in the hands of freshman Earl Bennett, who put the moves on sophomore Inky Johnson. (It just goes to show what a great passing combo can do in moments of need.)

It also exposed Tennessee's defensive weaknesses — a lack of depth at linebacker, a suspect secondary and an inability to create turnovers. (The Vols only have six interceptions through 10 games and are a minus-8 in turnover ratio. The already shallow LB corps was further depleted by the loss of Jerrod Mayo, as well as, knee injuries that have seriously slowed Kevin Simon and finally brought Jason Mitchell's senior season to a premature stop. Those factors made it difficult to blitz as much as the Vols would have liked, plus it left the DBs locked up in coverage.

It wasn't surprising that three of Tennessee's top four tacklers vs. Vandy were defensive backs because so many catches were made in front of them. The loss of senior corner Jason Allen to a hip injury against Georgia has substantially degrade the secondary and accentuated the need for a bigger, stronger safeties.

Coach John Chavis and his defensive staff have done a commendable job keeping the stop troops focused and motivated during a difficult season, but the battering of bodies and souls has taken its toll. The Vols defense looked fatigued for much of the Vandy game and there was definite erosion of technique. UT was lunging on tackles and not arriving at the point of attack in good position to make tackles.

Chavis may have also decided to play it conservative in the beginning because most opponents have used a lot of misdirection early to drain energy and blunt the edge of Tennessee's quick pursuit. Given the defense's diminished state, Chavis didn't have strong options against such an accomplished passing game. His predicament was reflected as the Vols surrendered four offensive TDs for the first time in any game this season.

The last stand on The Hill, like the season was a lost cause.

(Defensive grades to follow.)


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