Defense carries load ... again

If not for one awful quarter in Pasadena, Tennessee's defense might be the talk of Big Orange Country today.

Discounting a fourth-quarter fade in Game 1 that resulted in two late UCLA touchdowns, the Vol stop unit has allowed just two field goals in the other seven periods of action. With the Big Orange offense continuing its early-season struggles, the D carried the team in a 35-3 defeat of UAB Saturday at Neyland Stadium, registering three interceptions and limiting the Blazers to 275 net yards.

"We're playing some pretty good football," junior linebacker Rico McCoy said, flashing a satisfied grin. "We've just got to improve a little more each week."

The biggest Tennessee's defense encountered in Game 2 was getting off the field in the first half. The Blazers kept the ball for 18:06 to Tennessee's 11:54. Even so, the visitors trailed 14-0 at the break.

"They had a bunch of plays," McCoy noted, "but not a lot of yards. It was kind of crazy. Of course, we'd like to come off the field sooner than we did but we only allowed 30 yards rushing (actually 36) and about 100 passing (actually 102). It didn't add up."

The most pleasant surprise for Tennessee's defense through two games has been the play of Ellix Wilson. Thrust into the middle linebacker spot vacated by Jerod Mayo's premature jump to the NFL, Wilson has been exceptional. He topped the tackle chart for the second game in a row vs. UAB – registering 7 stops, an interception, a hurry, a pass breakup and half of a minus-yardage tackle.

"It was hot out there and we missed a couple of tackles," Wilson said. "But, for the most part, I think we played a great game."

Safety Eric Berry also contributed 7 stops, with an end-zone interception and half of a tackle for loss.

Strongside linebacker Adam Myers-White chipped in 5 stops, with two minus-yardage tackles – both coming on a single first-quarter UAB possession.

Cornerbacks Dennis Rogan and DeAngelo Willingham added 5 and 4 stops, respectively, with Willingham contributing a tackle for loss and an interception.

McCoy added 4 stops and a pass breakup that nearly resulted in yet another Vol interception.

Backup defensive end Chris Walker contributed 3 stops and forced a fumble.

UAB's Joe Webb, one of the most versatile quarterbacks the Vols will face, ran for a team-high 78 yards and passed for another 167 but completed just 19 of 34 attempts with the three interceptions. The rest of the Blazers' offensive personnel combined to produce 20 net yards.

UAB approached the end zone on just two occasions – both in the second period. A pass interference penalty on McCoy and an offsides infraction against tackle Dan Williams helped the Blazers advance to the Vol 21-yard line before losing the ball on downs.

Completions of 15 and 20 yards helped UAB advance to the Vol 9-yard line on the Blazers' next possession but Berry ended the threat with his interception.

Berry said the Vols "probably lost a little bit of focus" during that stretch, adding: "It just takes people like three-five (Ellix Wilson) to get everybody settled down and focused on our assignments."

Tennessee's defense got stronger as the game wore on. After allowing 94 yards in the first quarter, the Vols allowed just 44 in the second period and 49 in the third. Tennessee reserves played most of the fourth quarter, surrendering 88 yards. Chavis' decision to substitute early and often seemed to pay dividends.

"It helped a lot," Wilson said. "It was real hot out there. We all got a little winded, a little tired. We tried to get a lot of guys in there to get more experience, and I think it's going to help us down the road."

Chavis isn't ready to declare this a great defense but he likes this group of defenders and believes it can become a pretty stout unit.

"There are a lot of things we can improve on but I think we've got the people we can get there with, and that's the good part," he said. "The mistakes we made – be it physical or mental – are things we can correct."

Although Tennessee has protected its own end zone in seven of eight quarters to date, Chavis remains far from satisfied.

"We've done a good job but you can't have letdowns, and we had a few of those today," he said. "I was really excited about how we tackled in the first game but I was not happy about that today.

"UAB's got a good quarterback and some good receivers but half of the yards they made in this game they made off of missed tackles. We can't win in the SEC the way we played today."


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