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Watching with Ward
Tennessee Stat Book
If a dominant first half wasn't quite enough to convert all the skeptics, no problem.
Tennessee had a terrific kill shot in the opening minutes of the third quarter Saturday.
Arkansas, trailing 20-3, took the second-half kickoff and faced third-and-3 near midfield. A misdirection pitch to Darren McFadden put the most dangerous man in cleats rolling around left end with only one orange jersey in the vicinity.
Jonathan Hefney was in that orange jersey and he cut McFadden down like some spring practice scout-teamer for no gain.
"I went for his legs,'' said Hefney. "I knew if I went up high he'd shake me off.''
Hefney cut out Arkansas' legs as well. Instead of re-gaining desperately needed momentum, the Razorbacks punted - again.
Four plays later, Arian Foster uncorked a 59-yard touchdown run and all doubts were erased. Tennessee was going to win.
And did, 34-13, clearing another hurdle on the improbable quest to get to the SEC championship game in Atlanta on Dec. 1.
"Still alive,'' proclaimed quarterback Erik Ainge. "All we did was give ourselves a chance for next week.''
The weeks are down to two for the 22nd-ranked Vols (7-3, 4-2 SEC): Vanderbilt at home, then a trip to Kentucky.
If SEC East contenders Georgia and Florida were waiting for Tennessee to stumble against the Razorbacks (6-4, 2-4) - and they were - the wait continues.
Tennessee remained in control of the East by summoning a gigantic defensive performance against an Arkansas team that was on such a roll it appeared unstoppable last week against South Carolina.
The Vols held the Razorbacks' vaunted rushing game to 127 yards - or 314 fewer than last week. McFadden finished with a well-earned 117 yards. Sidekick Felix Jones was no factor after absorbing a thigh bruise.
Just as it did five weeks ago in a shutdown of Georgia, the beleaguered, statistically battered defensive unit refuted its critics.
"Every time you guys talk bad about us, we play good,'' linebacker Jerod Mayo told the media, "so keep talking bad.''
It'll be harder after Saturday.
Tennessee's defense dominated the first half, holding Arkansas to three first downs and 36 rushing yards.
Ainge's 16-yard TD pass to Austin Rogers put the Vols on top after their opening drive. Ainge and Josh Briscoe connected from 14 yards with 10 seconds left in the half to make it 20-3.
In between, Daniel Lincoln added field goals of 25 and 28 yards, offsetting a 31-yarder by Alex Tejada of Arkansas.
But it was just two weeks ago that Tennessee led South Carolina 21-0 at the half, only to fall behind in the fourth quarter before rallying to win in overtime.
That history made Hefney's tackle on McFadden - the 2006 Heisman Trophy runner-up - on the opening exchange of the second half all the more significant.
Foster's ensuing touchdown gallop, the Vols' longest running score of the season, was virtually the only big play the offense produced in the second half. But it was enough.
Dangerous as they are running the ball, the Razorbacks aren't fitted for quick-strike comebacks and a 27-3 UT lead was money in the bank.
Arkansas' only touchdown came on a 9-yard run by Michael Smith with 8:27 to play.
Mayo countered with an interception and 34-yard return for a touchdown to make it 34-13 with 2:46 left.
It was one of three picks. Eric Berry had the other two, at the end of the second and fourth quarters, respectively.
For Tennessee's offense, it was a minimalist effort but an effective one.
Arkansas outgained UT 289 yards to 279 in total offense. Ainge was 12-of-25 passing for 128 yards.
"All he cares about is winning,'' said UT coach Phillip Fulmer. "He's smiling just as big as he was when he threw for 300 yards.''
The Vols, however, outgained the nation's No. 2 rushing team on the ground, 151 to 127 and won time of possession by 6 minutes, 40 seconds.
"We had too many three-and-outs,'' said Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, "and couldn't make any first downs in the first half.
"That really hurt us and got us out of rhythm.''
The three interceptions hurt, as did the two times Tennessee held on fourth down.
"There were about four times the offense came sprinting on the field,'' said Ainge, "because we were so excited about something the defense did.''
The defense did a lot. And no one was happier for them than their fellow target of negativity, their head coach.
"We've gotten better,'' said Fulmer. "That's the essence of coaching.
"Stats, even scores, don't tell you everything about this football team and this staff, how hard they've worked, all the crap they've been through to get to this point and we're two games away from being in Atlanta.''
Mike Strange may be reached at 865-342-6276.