RTI contributor Robert Hughes is the author of this article
Entering Saturday’s match-up against Mississippi State, Tennessee’s defense had only accumulated eight sacks through five games.
Against the Bulldogs on Saturday, the Vols got seven in one game.
Leading the way for the Volunteers was senior edge rusher Darrell Taylor, who had two sacks and a forced fumble.
“I think we were just out there playing fast,” Taylor said to reporters after the Vols’ 20-10 win over Mississippi State. “We were getting off the rock. It’s something that we’ve been preaching all week. I think the inside guys did a hell of a job pushing the pocket and making the quarterback step back. We were coming around the edge really fast and making plays.”
The defensive pressure got to more than just the Bulldogs’ play-callers, however. Kylin Hill, the SEC’s leading rusher heading into the match-up against Tennessee, had been averaging more than 119 yards per game on the ground and over five yards a carry.
On Saturday, Hill had just 13 yards on 11 carries, marking easily his worst performance of the season.
“If you look defensively, I think what our guys did with their running game… I think Kylin Hill had 13 yards, and he’s a really good back; he’s one of the better backs in this league,” Tennessee head football coach Jeremy Pruitt said in his post-game press conference. “I think our guys did a really nice job of gang tackling, and I think our defensive staff did a phenomenal job of putting a plan together, and our guys went and executed.”
As much as Tennessee’s defensive front feasted on the Bulldogs, the Vols’ secondary was left with no shortage of scraps.
Sophomore safety Trevon Flowers, junior cornerback Kenneth George, Jr., and senior safety Nigel Warrior all came down with interceptions against Mississippi State, making the game against the Bulldogs the second game all season with three or more picks for Tennessee’s defense. The first one came against FCS foe UT-Chattanooga, though. Saturday, the Vols did it against an SEC offense.
Improvements in practice, Warrior says, were the key to the secondary’s stellar performance against the Bulldogs.
“Practice. It was practice,” Warrior said about why UT’s defense was able to have more success. “Throughout practices, starting from last week, we practiced with more intensity, more communication, and it was just a different vibe out there.
“Guys actually wanted to play football.”
Tennessee’s victory was not without its pitfalls, however. Against the Bulldogs, the Vols lost starting quarterback Brian Maurer to a concussion suffered in the second quarter. Flowers, who had one of Tennessee’s three interceptions, suffered a broken leg.
Despite the injuries, many of Tennessee’s players remain positive heading into the coming weeks.
“Seeing [Flowers] get hurt, it sucks, because he actually wants to go out there and play and be with his teammates,” Warrior stated. “You can’t dwell on it, the next man has got to step up and take his place. I know he’ll come back even harder next year, or whenever he comes back.”
Senior linebacker Daniel Bituli reiterated Warrior’s thoughts, noting that only a forward-thinking attitude will help the Vols retain positive momentum.
“I think we’ve improved each week. The guys have been stepping up, like next man up mentality,” Bituli said. “A lot of guys have been improving. I think we’ve taken the right steps forward going into next week.”
With freshman star linebacker Henry To’o To’o out for the first half against Alabama next week because of a targeting call in the fourth quarter, other linebackers—especially Bituli—will have to keep that “next man up” mentality.
While next week’s match-up doesn’t present much of an opportunity for Tennessee to add to its current one-game winning streak, the week-to-week improvement on the defensive side of the ball exhibited thus far will certainly help the Vols’ chances of making a bowl game this season.