Young 'backers rule

Tennessee's linebackers must have skipped the pre-game meal prior to Saturday's 2006 season opener with ninth-ranked California. Defensive coordinator John Chavis apparently fed them raw meat instead.

Attacking with the ferocity of a pack of wolves, Ryan Karl, Jerod Mayo and Marvin Mitchell shredded the Golden Bears as the Vols built a 35-0 lead and coasted to a 35-18 victory.

Karl finished with team highs for solo tackles (6) and total tackles (9). Mayo chipped in 7 stops, including 3 sacks. He also broke up a pass. Mitchell chipped in 7 more stops, 2 tackles for loss, a pass breakup and a hurry. Redshirt freshman Rico McCoy, probably the most physically gifted Vol ‘backer, came off the bench to contribute a couple of solo stops.

Shutting down Cal is not nearly as easy as the Vols made it look Saturday evening. The Golden Bears are truly versatile on offense. They have a passing quarterback (Nate Longshore) and a mobile quarterback (Joe Ayoob). They have a big back (Heisman candidate Marshawn Lynch) and a scat-back (Justin Forsett). They have a hybrid offense that features elements of the "I" and the spread option.

None of these weapons worked, though, against a Tennessee defense that swarmed from opening kickoff until final gun.

"Coach Chavis did a good job, giving us two game plans for this game," Mayo said. "We were prepared for both quarterbacks, both running backs and both schemes, really."

Mitchell set the tone on the game's second scrimmage play, bursting through the line to drop Forsett for a five-yard loss. Karl undermined Cal's second possession by coming from the backside to drop Lynch for a one-yard loss. Mayo broke up a pass moments later.

Mitchell and Karl combined to belt Forsett for a two-yard loss that sidetracked the Golden Bears' next possession. Mayo recorded sacks of nine and 10 yards to thwart Cal possession No. 4. Karl helped drop Forsett for a two-yard loss that sidetracked possession No. 5.

Mitchell hit Lynch in the backfield and safety Antwan Stewart pinned him for a two-yard loss, killing Cal's first possession of the second half. Karl made a nifty open-field stop of Lynch after a two-yard gain to stymie Cal's next possession.

The Golden Bears advanced to the Vol 40-yard line late in the third quarter but Mitchell hit Ayoob just as he was unloading a pass, leading to a drive-killing Inquoris Johnson interception.

At this point Cal's vaunted offense had 139 yards of total offense and Tennessee had a 35-0 lead. Game … set … match. This one was over. A 2006 Vol defense minus six members of last fall's front seven – including all three starting linebackers – had passed its first test with flying colors. Literally. The Vols flew to the ball as if they had rockets attached to their cleats.

"We tried to get in the best shape we could because we knew we were going to have to play a lot of snaps; we're kind of young this year," said defensive tackle Justin Harrell, the only returnee from the 2005 front seven. "It's just a philosophy: We give unbelievable effort.

"Everybody wants to get to the ball and gang-tackle. With the great backs they had at Cal, we knew that would be a big key for us. I think the overall speed of our defense was a big factor for us."

Tennessee's defensive quickness put tremendous pressure on Cal's quarterbacks. Longshore lost his poise and made several awful throws, one of which was intercepted. Ayoob piled up some passing yards after the outcome was settled but finished just 9 of 22 with an interception. When Vol defenders weren't sacking the quarterback, they were pounding him just as he released the ball. The punishing hits seemed to rattle Longshore and Ayoob.

"That's hard to say, but it definitely helped us out," Mayo said. "Also, when you get a big lead on someone, it takes their will from them. We just wanted to go out, dominate the line of scrimmage, stick the running backs as much as we could and show ‘em Tennessee ain't gonna' be no easy place to come in and get a W."

Mission accomplished.

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