Why did the Vol defense suddenly show new-found strength against the run? For one thing, Tennessee's youthful defenders are maturing on a weekly basis. For another, the Vols are gradually adjusting to the loss of star defensive tackle and premier run-stuffer Justin Harrell.
"The difference is just settling in," sophomore linebacker Jerod Mayo says. "Losing a guy like Justin Harrell that's a run stopper, you have to get those young guys in there and get used to their style of play. I think we've done that."
The effectiveness of Tennessee's run defense has come a long way since being shredded for 281 rushing yards by Air Force in Game 2. So has the confidence level of Tennessee's run defense.
"It's real high right now," Mayo says. "Air Force came in with a little option, and a lot of teams have been trying to run the option on us. But I feel like we got those screws tightened and we can stop the option, the straight downhill run … any type of running plays."
South Carolina may throw some option plays at the Vols Saturday night in Columbia. Syvelle Newton is a very mobile quarterback, and the Gamecocks have two solid running backs in Cory Boyd and Mike Davis. Boyd ran for 113 yards against Kentucky and 113 more against Vanderbilt in his two most recent outings.
"They have a couple of good ones – quick scatbacks," Mayo notes. "Boyd isn't the biggest of backs but he runs with authority, so we'll have to be focused in on him."
Tennessee has better talent than South Carolina, so the Gamecocks likely will try to shorten Saturday night's game by running the ball and eating up the clock. If Steve Spurrier's team can maintain the ball for long periods of time, Tennessee's chances of winning are sure to suffer.
Conversely, if the Vols can stop the run and force Newton to throw the ball 35 times, their chances of winning improve significantly.
"Stopping the run would be a major thing," Mayo says. "We're a defense that doesn't like giving up yards, running OR passing. Stopping the run would be a big-time help for us because then we'd know what the offense is going to be doing (passing).
"Whatever they come out with, we want to be ready."