Tennessee’s defense has taken some lumps this year, starting with the first game of the season when Georgia Tech piled up 535 yards rushing. At few points in the year has the Vols’ defense looked like a unit capable of putting the team on its back and winning a football game.
That was the case on Saturday night against Southern Miss though, a game the offense went into ravaged by injuries and then suffered a few more personnel losses that drastically changed the nature of the game.
The most obvious of those was when freshman quarterback Will McBride was thrust into action after Jarrett Guarantano left the game after suffering an ankle injury at the end of the first half.
That turned an already limited Volunteer offense into a very conservative unit, forcing the defense to shoulder an even larger burden than the began the game with.
And guess what? They came through with flying colors.
Tennessee’s defense came up with two game changing turnovers on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter. Twice in a row—once via an interception and once with a fumble recovery—the Vol offense took over on the Southern Mis 20-yard line.
The Vols cashed both turnovers in for touchdowns, and basically, that was the difference in the football game.
For a defense that has been the brunt of some criticism this fall, coming through in those circumstances was a confidence booster.
“It was very rewarding. We always talk about finishing the game. In some of the games we lost we really didn’t do that as a defense. It was kind of a like an ‘ahhhhh’ moment, like ‘thank God, we finally ended the game. That was really nice for us,” Kyle Phillips said of being part of a defense that finally pushed its team over the hump.
Through six games Tennessee had forced just seven turnovers, putting them near the bottom of the SEC in takeaways.
The Vols have matched that total with seven takeaways in their last three games. One at Alabama, four at Kentucky and the two last week against Southern Miss.
That sterling effort has vaulted them all the way up to fourth in the SEC in turnover margin at +3, a dramatic turnaround which Guarantano has also had a hand in since he took over the quarterback job.
Phillips noted that the Vols aren’t really doing anything different, but the in-game results are just finally catching up to the practice performances.
“Ever since coach Shoop’s been here our mindset has been to hunt the ball. Last year we didn’t hunt it as well, but this year’s it’s kind of translated over (from practice),” Phillips shared
“It’s just the repetition of trying to strip the ball, things like that or getting our hands up for interceptions. In practice we’ve been doing a great job of forcing fumbles, forcing picks and things and now it’s translating into the games.”
It seems a pretty safe bet that the Vols will need to continue the recent trend of forcing opponent mistakes if they’re going to slow down a Missouri offense that’s playing at a high level of late.
The Tigers are the third highest scoring team in the SEC (36.4 ppg) and are second in the SEC in passing offense, throwing for 315 yards per game through the air.
Tennessee hasn’t faced a passing attack that’s remotely comparable to what they’ll see from Missouri this weekend. The Vols rank first in the SEC in pass defense (150 yards per game).
That stat is extremely misleading though since the highest rated passing attack, in terms of yardage, the defense has faced this fall was UMass, a team that ranks 28th nationally and the Southern Miss squad they just saw, which ranks 49th.
It doesn’t seem like a stretch to think that a Tennessee offense that’s putting up just 20.8 points per contest is once again going to need some help from their defensive counterparts to steal some extra possessions.
It’s a much different mindset from a year ago when Phillips and his defensive mates often just had to hang on and hope that Josh Dobbs and the offense could put up enough points to carry the day.
“For sure it’s a different mindset for us. Last year we were banged up a lot on defense and that really hurt us,” Phillips said of the comparison. “This year for the most part we’ve played pretty solid but we’ve obviously given up too many big plays.
“This year we know we have a young quarterback, young offense with a lot of new faces. We know that we have to step up.”
The Vols were able to rise to the occasion and get that done against Southern Miss to snap a four game losing streak.
If they’re going to put together back-to-back wins they’re likely going to have to do it again this weekend in Columbia.