UT's D Coming of Age

Reclamation of Tennessee's defense remains right on course after the Vols rose from the canvas, and a 14-7 deficit, to hold the Bulldogs to only seven points over the last 44:08 of the game Saturday in Starkville.

No, it wasn't the emotional or dominating effort demonstrated against Georgia, but UT's defenders did show some fire and shored up some sloppy early tackling to give the offense a chance to outscore the Bulldogs 26-7 the rest of the way, as the Volunteers cruised to a critical 33-21 SEC road victory against a dangerous opponent.

There will be tougher tests down the road, but Mississippi State's offense was more balanced than advertised and its offensive line was as solid as the Vols are likely to see the rest of the way in conference play.

Here are the top to bottom defensive ratings for the Tennessee-Mississippi State 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.

SECONDARY (90) This is the first time this year we've been able to give the secondary top marks for its play. Granted Mississippi State scored two of its three TDs through the air, but overall State completed just 18-of-34 passes for 202 yards. The Bulldogs were held to a combined 6 of 19 third and fourth down conversions. Those numbers are all the more impressive considering UT only had one sack and one QB hurry. The DBs were also a vital component to limiting the run. Eric Berry (4 solo, 2 assists), Brent Vinson (3/2), Jonathan Hefney (3/2) and Marcelous Johnson (3/2) were four of the Vols top six tacklers, while true freshman Savion Frazier added 3 stops with 1 assist. Many of those tackles brought down 240-pound power back Anthony Dixon. This unit was UT's biggest problem early in the year, but is rapidly becoming a strength. Best of all the aforementioned are comprised of three true freshmen, one sophomore and a senior.

LINEBACKERS (85) Tennessee's linebackers were enforcers against Mississippi State, setting a physical tone with big hits and controlling the inside run with disciplined play. Rico McCoy topped the tackle chart with 9 (6 solo) while Ryan Karl had 5 (3 solo) and three pass breakups. Jerod Mayo had 4 primary stops, including the best hit of the game. Again a lack of production by reserves is cause for concern. Depth will become a major factor as the Vols go down the stretch without any breaks. A similar situation developed in 2004 and extracted a toll with two loses in the last four games in which the last three opponents — Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Auburn — scored 33, 31 and 38 points respectively.

DEFENSIVE LINE (78) Not nearly as much production as the Vols got from this group against Georgia. Neither was UT's front as disruptive as it needs to be. Still there were bright spots including Dan Williams (1 stop, 4 assists), Demonte Bolden (2/2 with a QB hurry) and a sack by defensive end Antonio Reynolds. Xavier Mitchell added 3 tackles (2 solo). Wes Brown and Walter Fisher contributed a tackle each off the bench. The continued development of this unit is the key to UT's ceiling for success on defense. To this point it hasn't shown the athleticism to destroyed an opponent's timing or the quickness to pressure the passer.

OVERALL (84) Given the opponent and the venue this was the Vols second best effort this season. The fact it came between contests with Georgia and Alabama is encouraging because it shows an ability to be effective without depending heavily upon emotion as a fuel. The play of the secondary was a highlight as was the rally the defense staged after falling behind. This group is starting to show the mental toughness needed to consistently win in the SEC. Hail to the Chief.

SPECIAL TEAMS (92) Daniel Lincoln may be UT's unsung hero this season. He finally missed a field goal Saturday but responded to the 26-yard misfire with field goals from 47, 29, 26 and 43 yards. Those four place kicks were essentially the difference in the game. Britton Colquitt averaged 42.8 yards per punt and was credited with a tackle, but he only averaged 59.5 yards on his kickoffs with no touchbacks. He also had a kickoff go out of bounds. Kick and punt coverage was excellent, and Jonathan Hefney had his best day this season as a punt return specialist with five for 65 yards including a nifty 35-yard return. Kickoff returns could use a boost.

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