Safety first

Marshall shot itself in the foot on its very first scrimmage play Saturday, an errant shotgun snap backing up the Thundering Herd at its own 3-yard line. Two plays later, a Tennessee defensive end shot the Herd in the heart.

With Marshall facing a third-and-33 at its own 2-yard line, Xavier Mitchell was expecting a draw play. He was right. Quarterback Bernard Morris took a shotgun snap, paused briefly, then headed upfield. He didn't get far. Mitchell, with some help from tackle Matt McGlothlin, slung Morris to the ground for a safety.

Spurred by the quick 2-0 lead, Tennessee's offense drove to a touchdown on the ensuing possession, widening the gap to 9-0 less than 10 minutes into the first quarter.

"We kind of figured they were going to run the draw," Mitchell recalled. "We ran a twist, and it opened up well. Turk (McBride) did a great job picking up the back who came underneath, and there he (Morris) was."

Mitchell and the number "2" seem inextricably linked this season. It was his tackle of Chad Hall that foiled a potential game-winning two-point conversion run and sealed a 31-30 Game 2 defeat of Air Force. And it was his safety that provided the first two points in Tennessee's 33-7 trouncing of Marshall.

"We got the momentum with the bad snap, and the crowd got into it," Mitchell said. "The crowd did a great job with the rain and everything. They got us hyped, just like we got them hyped."

For a change, Vol defenders stayed hyped for all four quarters. They had wilted in the final period of their first three games, a fact defensive coordinator John Chavis mentioned regularly in the week leading up to Game 4.

"Every single day," Mitchell said emphatically. "He drilled it into us, and he got a response, plain and simple. We're going to continue to work that way. When we hold up four fingers at the start of the fourth quarter, it's going to mean something.

"It was drilled into our heads this week a whole lot, and it's going to be in our systems the rest of the season."

Although Tennessee's defense surrendered just one touchdown, the Vols still allowed Marshall to maintain nearly a nine-minute advantage in time of possession (34:29 to 25:31). That could prove disastrous when the Big Orange returns to SEC play Oct. 7 at Georgia.

"Like Coach Fulmer and Coach Chavis have been saying; we've got to get off the field," Mitchell said. "We've got to convert our third downs and get ourselves off the field. That goes along with finishing strong. We just have to suck it up and do things the way we're taught."

Asked how good this Vol defense could be, Mitchell answered without hesitation: "As good as any Tennessee defense we've ever had here. We just have to start playing more consistent and keep our heads in the game."

After being shredded by Air Force's flexbone option and embarrassed by backup Florida quarterback Tim Tebow's spread-option keepers, Tennessee performed surprisingly well against Marshall's version of the option series. Still, Mitchell figures more opponents will use the unorthodox offense against UT this fall.

"We see things every week," he said. "They're going to try to do things from past games that hurt us before. We'll be looking forward to it every game ... until we stop it."

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