Tennessee’s coaching staff constantly talks about creating turnovers with their defensive players. It’s one of their top priorities.
“If you just create the right habits in practice it shows up on Saturdays,” Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt explained Saturday night. “It’s one of the things we’ve been trying to stress to our players.
“We keep a tab of it every week. Caused fumbles, interceptions, shots on the ball. Might not be a fumble, but who took shots on the ball? Batted balls for passes. The weeks that we do it in practice, it shows up in the game. The weeks that it don’t show up on Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday, it don’t show up on Saturday.”
The Vols’ work at practice this past week came to fruition on Saturday night when Tennessee cruised to a 30-7 win over UAB on Homecoming. Tennessee (4-5, 2-3 SEC) forced four turnovers, three of which were interceptions for Bryce Thompson, while the other turnover happened when Darel Middleton punched the ball out of Blazers’ quarterback Tyler Johnston’s possession.
All four of UT’s turnovers came in the first half. Tennessee’s offense couldn’t take complete advantage due to red zone struggles, but the turnovers led to 20 of the Vols’ 30 points.
“I thought defensively, we really changed the game with turnovers in the first half,” Pruitt said following the win. “With short fields, felt like we won the field-position battle there in the first half, which really helped.”
Thompson’s first interception came on the very first play of the game, which was a big improvement from the 75-yard touchdown the Vols allowed on the first play against South Carolina a week ago. The interception turned into three points thanks to a 36-yard field goal from Brent Cimaglia.
“It was perfect play-calling,” Thompson explained. “The first one, I was in the flats, and my man went vertical to the safety, so I went to help out the linebacker over top. The quarterback threw it right to me, and that was all she wrote for them.”
Thompson’s second interception also resulted in a field goal for Cimaglia, this one from 53 yards out, to extend Tennessee’s lead to 9-0 with 13:38 remaining in the second quarter. It wasn’t only a career-long for Cimaglia, but it was the longest made field goal for the Vols since Jeff Hall made a 53-yard field goal against Oklahoma State in 1995.
On the very next drive, Middleton’s forced fumble set Tennessee up perfectly. The Vols took over on the UAB 30-yard line, and Jarrett Guarantano promptly led the offense down the field and handed the football off to Ty Chandler for an 11-yard touchdown. The score extended UT’s lead to 16-0 with 11:36 remaining in the half.
Two drives after Aubrey Solomon recovered the fumble forced by Middleton, Thompson came up with his third interception of the game. The sophomore corner had a little help on this one, however, as freshman linebacker Henry To’o To’o tipped the pass at the line of scrimmage.
“He’s the heart and soul of the defense,” Thompson said of To’o To’o. “I definitely had to award him after that. I didn’t want the play to go to waste. It wouldn’t have happened without him.”
As the offense did with the third turnover, they turned the fourth takeaway of the game into a touchdown as well. Thompson’s third interception of the game gave the Vols the football at the UAB 43-yard line. Six plays later, Jauan Jennings punched it into the end zone from two yards out to push the Vols’ lead to 23-0 with 3:29 remaining in the second quarter.
Tennessee held UAB (6-2) to zero points and just 116 yards of offense in the first half, and UT forced four turnovers. The Vols held the Blazers to 2.6 yards per rush and allowed them to only convert on third down 29 percent of the time. Through the air, UAB had just 80 passing yards.
“I thought our defensive players, they practiced well all week, so not surprising how they played,” Pruitt said of the defensive effort. “It was good. When they made mistakes, we made them pay.
“When they make mistakes, you have to make them pay. We did that tonight.”
The Vols didn’t allow a touchdown for nearly six-straight quarters dating back to last week’s 41-21 win over South Carolina. Tennessee nearly shut the Blazers out until Dylan Hopkins — from nearby Maryville High School — found Lucious Stanley for a 15-yard touchdown with 2:35 remaining in the game.
Tennessee’s defensive performance was nearly perfect. The offense, on the other hand, would like to have some drives back.
Tennessee started on UAB’s side of the field on five of its 13 possessions. But the Vols only managed to produce two touchdowns on those five drives. As for the other three drives, two resulted in a field goal and the other one resulted in a Guarantano interception that took points off the board before the end of the first half.
Struggles in the red zone have plagued the Vols all year. Entering the game, Tennessee was scoring when reaching the red zone just 74 percent of the time — ranking 110th nationally. The Vols scored a touchdown just 40.74 percent of the time when they got into the red zone. Among 14 SEC teams, the Vols’ red zone offense ranked 10th.
Against UAB, the struggles were magnified each time the defense set the offense up for success.
“There are lots of things,” Pruitt said of the red zone struggles. “You have to do a nice job making sure everybody knows where you’re pushing to, who is the Mike backer, who is working with who, taking the correct steps.
“Sometimes in all of that it takes the quarterback to glue all that together. Sometimes it takes the fronts. You have to work hand-in-hand. We’ve made some mistakes from just not blocking the right folks to maybe not stepping with the correct foot or the proper angle. Hey, maybe not straining enough. There are a lot of things that go into it. And as a play-caller, you have to have confidence to throw the football in the red area. We made some plays throughout the year where we’ve turned the ball over, which we can’t do.”
Tennessee now turns its attention to a road trip to Lexington. Just two wins away from a bowl game with three games remaining, the Vols will look to extend their winning streak to three games next Saturday against Kentucky (4-4, 2-4 SEC) at 7:30 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.