Turnovers Tip Balance

Tennessee's cliffhanger victory over South Carolina proves if a defense can't always be oppressive it must at least sometimes be opportune or it will never be successful.

Statistically the Vols defense performance vs. the Gamecocks was the same as it was against Alabama, two opponents not noted for having high-octane offenses. Bama hit UT up for 510 yards with 147 coming on the ground and 363 through the air in 84 plays. The Tide had 27 first downs and controlled the ball 37:38 including 10:41 in the fourth quarter. The Gamecocks compiled 501 yards including 171 yards rushing and 330 yards passing in 89 plays. S.C. controlled the ball 36:35 including 10:50 of the final stanza.

As remarkably close as those stats are it's noteworthy that Alabama scored 41 points while South Carolina scored 24. Of course the difference was in the turnover category as the Tide had no turnovers and the Gamecocks had three. That's three more turnovers and three fewer scores. Entering the South Carolina game Tennessee only had five INTs and three fumble recoveries so it is a definite step in the right direction for a defense that seems unable to dominate on its best day.

Eric Berry, who looks like a sure first team freshman all-American, had the two biggest plays with a dynamic 52-yard return of a fumble and an interception he returned 13 yards. The fumble return put the Vols in business at S.C.'s 2 yard-line. Veteran linebacker Ryan Karl also had an interception for the Vols. All three turnovers were forced by defenders, none were gifts.

Here's the top to bottom defensive ratings for the Tennessee-South Carolina 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. Each score will be followed by a brief comment. Special teams grade is included with defense. Further analysis to follow.

LINEBACKERS (86) Let's face it when you're playing behind a suspect defensive line and an inexperienced secondary it's like being in no-man's land for the Vols' linebackers. The fact they've played as many repetitions as they have the last two games with little support from the bench and remained productive speaks well for their toughness and stamina. Rico McCoy led all tacklers with a game high 14 stops (6 solo) followed by Ryan Karl with 12 (10 solo) and Jerod Mayo with 11 (9 solo). Mayo also had a sack for a 9 yard loss and Ryan added his key INT. UT's starting trio combined for 37 stops including four for loss of yardage.

SECONDARY (74) Much maligned and seemingly able to make any SEC QB look like an All-Pro, this group nonetheless has talent and the potential to vastly improve. How much of that improvement will come over the next four games is anybody's guess but the most progress will be made in the off-season. Berry continues ot impress as he had 12 tackles to go with his two turnovers and 65 return yards. Willingham had his best game yet with 10 tackles (9 solo) and he forced the fumble Berry returned to S.C.'s 2 yard-line. Jonathan Hefney added 11 tackles and seems to be hitting his stride. Brent Vinson (4 stops) is learning on the job and making the type of mistakes one would expect from a first-year player in a new position. He does have ability however although it remains to be seen if corner is his best position. The fact the Gamecocks were able to complete 68 percent of their passes for 330 yards with two quarterbacks that came into the game with a combined efficiency rating of 107.2 is an indictment that's difficult to defend against. However this score is raised by the turnovers.

DEFENSIVE LINE (54) When a defense is unable to stop either the pass or run as was the case against both Alabama and South Carolina, there's a good chance the defensive line is not getting off the ball or playing down hill. Tennessee did have some early success with a series of stunts that confused Carolina's blocking scheme, but once the Gamecocks adjusted and the fatigue factor sat in the Vols D-line was virtually invisible. Still Dan Williams had a solid game with four stops including three behind the line of scrimmage, but Demonte Bolden, J.T. Mapu and Walter Fisher just had one stop each from their inside positions. Ends Xavier Mitchell (3 stops, 2 assists) and Robert Ayers (2 stops, 1 assist) had their moments however we're still waiting for a breakout game in which the ends create havoc, disrupt timing and apply consistent pressure from the edge.

OVERALL (73) Giving up 1,011 yards combined in consecutive SEC games won't earn glowing praise or a high mark. This score is as high as it is for the turnovers created and the fact the defense stymied South Carolina in overtime. Obviously the rest that occurred on UT's final scoring drive and the long time out after regulation play regenerated the stop troops. Perhaps the Vols would be better throwing more fresh players into the breach instead of relying too heavily on tired players with superior skills.

SPECIAL TEAMS (90) Daniel Lincoln's 48-yard field goal with 00:05 left in the game was as pressure and clutch as you can get. Then he nailed the game winner from 27 yards in overtime. The tying field goal was set up by an excellent 37 yard return by LaMarcus Coker, making this a memorable effort by the Vols special teams. Tennessee also got a 29-yard kickoff return by freshman Dennis Rogan and limited the Gamecock's return game 94 yards on five kickoffs and 3 yards on two punt returns. A weakness at the beginning of the 2007 campaign has turned into a strength.

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