They had been down by at least two touchdowns on several occasions including games against LSU, Georgia, Notre Dame, Memphis and Vanderbilt. As it's easier to play offense with the lead so is it an enormous advantage playing defense. That explains why the intrepid Vol defenders may have saved their best for last. And it reminds us
Here's the top to bottom defensive ratings for the Tennessee-Kentucky 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.
DEFENSIVE LINE (100) This is the only perfect score awarded to any unit this season, and it's well deserved, as UT's D-line was absolutely dominate in this game. Plus the four turnovers forced — highlighted by a Justin Harrell's INT for a touchdown — elevates this mark to the max. The Vols held Kentucky to 46 yards on the ground in 33 carries for a 1.4 yards per run average. Tennessee held a Wildcat team that had scored 48 points while beating Vanderbilt to only 223 total yards and eight points. The main reason was a front four that could well be the best in America. Turk McBride and Parys Haralson had two sacks each and the front four added three of UT's other five stops behind the line. The pressure Tennessee put on the passer led to three other interceptions. Harrell also batted down a pass and forced a fumble to go with four tackles. Jesse Mahelona only had one tackle but continues to be the anchor up front who frees the other linemen to make plays. Haralson looked like vintage Leonard Little coming off the edge with bad intentions. He had six tackles including four for losses and he forced two fumbles. Jason Hall had three solo stops and he broke up a pass, capping a standout senior season along with Haralson and Mahelona. You got to figure that Justin Harrell, a redshirt junior, is headed to the pro ranks a year early, especially in light of this season's disappointment and the misfortune that befell Jason Allen in his return for a fifth season. Replacing all four starters will be a tall task for John Chavis, Dan Brooks and Steve Caldwell.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (90) Kentucky didn't have the personnel to put Tennessee's DBs to the test, but it was still one of the secondary's best efforts this year, as both Jonathan Hefney and Demetrice Morley came up with interceptions and the Vols limited the Kats air attack to only 177 yards through the air on 27-of-41 passing. However, 13 of those completions were to running backs for 81 yards, meaning the Wildcats had only 96 yards against UT's defensive backs. Antwan Stewart led Tennessee with nine tackles (eight solo) and forced a fumble. Roshaun Fellows followed with seven stops (six solo). Jonathan Hefney added four tackles while Inquoris Johnson and Jonathan Wade had two each. Wade also broke up a pass. The secondary returns completely intact next fall and should be a strength for the Vols, although they need more size at strong safety and a better ball hawk at free safety.
LINEBACKERS (86) Wear and tear took its toll on UT's linebacker corp this season and it appeared to fade late in the year. Although this unit didn't develop depth early, it was solid to the end and played with a lot of pride. The three top performers against Kentucky were reserves to start the year. Jon Poe shared reps at middle linebacker with Kevin Simon and had six stops including one for a loss. Marvin Mitchell filled in for Jason Mitchell (season ending surgery) and contributed five solos with one for negative yardage. Ryan Karl split time with Gaither and recorded four tackles. Simon had four primary hits and recovered a fumble despite being slowed with a knee injury, while Gaither had three stops. The Vols have a chance to be better here next season by way of being deeper. Redshirt freshmen Rico McCoy, Andre Mathis and Adam Myers-White should up the octane and athleticism of this group.
OVERALL (92) No, Kentucky didn't have a great offense, but they had the mobility to create problems had the Vols not disrupted timing and obliterated the point of attack. Good match-up for the Vols and a sound game plan by the coaches. What made this performance special was the four turnovers caused. Three of the Vols nine INTs on the season came in this game.
SPECIAL TEAMS (78) The fact special teams didn't play a critical role in the outcome of this game was a victory in itself for UT's kicking game, although Hefney's fumbled punt led to Kentucky's first field goal. The Vols didn't get much on returns, but they kept the dangerous Rapheal Little in check and held the edge in punting and place kicking. James Wilhoit made both of his attempts and Britton Colquitt averaged 44.2 yards with a long of 59. Wilhoit had his best collegiate season, connecting on 14-of-19, and Colquitt proved as good as his name in his maiden campaign, averaging a solid 41.2 yards per punt. Both should be better next year. Otherwise the Vols have a lot of work to do to bring special teams play up to Robert R. Neyland standards.