Events beyond Neyland Stadium's cavernous confines exacerbated concerns about the state of the Vols defense. Earlier that day California survived an upset bid by winless Colorado State to post a 34-28 victory, while to the south the Gators were trouncing Troy 49-7 at the half.
After falling behind the Golden Eagles 16-10 with 5:18 left in the second quarter, Tennessee would outscore their opponents 29-3. On offense hitting on all cylinders was joined by a defense that finally hit it's stride and gave UT fans hope the Vols could compete in The Swamp.
Here's the top to bottom defensive ratings for the Tennessee-Florida game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are winning 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. Special teams are included among defensive ratings but they aren't factored into the defense's total score. Each score will be followed by a brief comment. Further analysis to follow.
D-LINE (94) Tennessee's defensive line was as good against Southern Miss as it was bad against California. In his first start Dan Williams recorded six tackles, while Walter Fisher came off the bench to contribute five stops. The defensive ends were very active especially Robert Ayers who had three solo tackles with two stops behind the line (one sack) and two QB hurries. Antonio Reynolds was solid with six tackles (five solo), while Xavier Mitchell had four stops and two hurries. Demonte Bolden, J.T. Mapu and Chase Nelson had two stops each as the Vols showed good depth up front. Against Cal the Vols didn't have any quarterback hurries, but recorded six against the Golden Eagles. The defensive line's ability to pressure the passer was the key to UT's turnaround.
LINEBACKERS (87) Rico McCoy was the standout with a team-high nine tackles, one interception and one pass breakup. (Slight deduction for trying to lateral the pick.) Jerod Mayo had four tackles (one for loss), half a sack and a QB hurry. Ryan Karl added three solo stops. The Vols need some of the reserves to step up their game or the first team will be forced to pace itself.
SECONDARY (80) Safeties Jerrod Parrish (seven tackles, fumble recovery) and Eric Berry (five tackles) display a nose for the football, but were out of position on a few passes. Jonathan Hefney had a sub par performance with three tackles (one solo). Marcelous Johnson was a target most of the night and he had two tackles with two breakups. However he also got burned deep for Southern Miss' only touchdown. Antonio Gaines had one tackle before he went down with a knee injury that could cost him the remainder of the season. Kudos to Ricardo Kemp (three solo stops) who stepped in for Gaines and provided physical play and sound coverage. The loss of Gaines will lead to further shuffling of the starters and could expose them to big plays against the Gators.
OVERALL (86) Tennessee's stop troops allowed Southern Miss to get into scoring position too often but stiffened in the red zone. Obviously the opponent wasn't as tough as Cal or Florida, but the performance was encouraging and indicates personnel is available for further improvement as the season unfolds. Extra points for fourth quarter safety credited to the team.
SPECIAL TEAMS (96) Tennessee still allowed too many yards on kick returns (8 for 182 yards or nearly 23 yards per return), but the kicking game was excellent with Daniel Lincoln nailing 3-of-3 field goal attempts from 38, 36 and 47 yards. Chad Cunningham filled in for Britt Colquitt and averaged 40.7 net yards with no returns. He also handled kickoffs and averaged nearly 60 yards per kick. This was an area of concern going into the season but the future appears to be in good hands. Or is it feet?