Yes the defense was burned for 564 yards, 37 first downs and seven touchdowns, but it held the Wildcats to 2.8 yards per rush, forced three turnovers and recorded six sacks. It also took the fight to Kentucky for four quarters and four OTs before finally winning the fist fight. Some huge hits and big plays from surprising sources were also key factors in the critical victory.
Here are the top to bottom defensive ratings for the Tennessee-Kentucky 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.
LINEBACKERS (93) From covering receivers to harassing the quarterback to slamming ball carriers to the ground with disregard for their own welfare, Tennessee's LBs were all over the field Saturday. Jerod Mayo, who is having at least an All-SEC season, posted 19 tackles including 11 solo. He also broke up a pass that was intercepted by Ricardo Kemp, and had 1.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage. The ideal MLB for UT's speed defense. Ryan Karl added 10 tackles while Rico McCoy was credited with 9. Ellix Wilson blitzed for an 11-yard sack. As an old football coach of mine used to say these guys are mobile, agile and hostile.
SECONDARY (84) Better than statistics indicate when you measure the overall contributions. For instance: there was Eric Berry with 14 tackles and a couple of near interceptions. Berry's size and strength allows him to play as a linebacker in UT's scheme, but he also has the speed and ability to play any other secondary role from cover corner to free safety. Kemp, who has seen his PT increase, played as part of UT's nickel package and twice sacked Woodson in addition to picking off a defected pass. Starters Jonathan Hefney and DeAngelo Willingham recorded 9 stops each. Nevin McKenzie added six stops including a couple of assists for losses. They gave up too many yards and touchdowns, but they played a major role in stopping the run and pressuring the passer. They didn't allow a pass longer than 40 yards or a run longer than 21. However they did give too much cushion at times.
DEFENSIVE LINE (81) The Tennessee D-line didn't produce a lot of big numbers but it had its share of big moments such as a sack and forced fumble from Demonte Bolden that was recovered by Wes Brown. Robert Ayers had a sack and landed the game's best hit on Cat QB Woodson. Antonio Reynolds added a sack and Xavier Mitchell intercepted a point blank pass that set up a UT score. The biggest play of turned in by a UT D-linemen was produced by Dan "Big Bear" Williams on special teams. This much maligned unit is playing with more energy and confidence. There is still not enough pressure on the passer with blitzing. Of the Vols six sacks Saturday, four went to LBs and DBs. And UT's D-line failed to chalk up a single QB hurry.
OVERALL (85) Okay this score might seem a little high in light of the points Kentucky scored, but 19 of those came in overtime. The Cats have put numbers like that up at home against some such teams as LSU and Florida. What the Vols demonstrated was excellent depth, physical play and plenty of fire. The missing element is more push up the middle and better gap control against the run. As long as UT isn't getting consistent pressure with its down four the DBs have to tighten their coverage or teams will just pass them dizzy.
SPECIAL TEAMS (95) There wasn't a lot of excitement last year when the Vols landed homegrown back Dennis Rogan, but there's plenty of excitement now for the boost the scat-back has given the return game. He added 72 yards in returns Saturday and demonstrated a talent for catching punts in a crowd. Meanwhile UT's kick coverage was as good as it has been all season. Colquitt was getting good height with his punts and distance with his kickoffs. Daniel Lincoln atoned for missing a 47-yard first quarter field goal by hitting a 45-yard attempt just before the half. Of course, the gold star goes to Dan Williams who reached a big paw in the air, slapped down a field goal and saved UT's championship hopes.