Tennessee Stat Book
Tennessee came out and missed some critical tackles.
It struggled at times to simply line up properly.
A quick-hitting spread offense again kept the Vols from piling up many sacks.
But when an attack predicated on finesse needed to line up and play physically, a UT defensive front that spent the offseason being doubted pinned its ears back, dominated the line of scrimmage and swung the momentum one critical short-yardage stop at a time in a 45-23 win over Cincinnati on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
"It's a great feeling," defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. "We go in there every week and talk about getting the big stops, don't let them get the small stuff.
"When we can go out there and get stops on them like that, it's big momentum for the defense and the offense. I think we got points off it, so it's always big when you get stops on fourth-and-1."
The Vols (2-0) got them twice in the second quarter, turning what had been an explosive, competitive battle into a blowout with a pair of impressive plays in the backfield.
Picked apart early through the air due to some issues matching personnel and victimized by a long touchdown after whiffing on running back Isaiah Pead in the first quarter, it looked as if it would be up to the Vols' offense to simply out-slug the Bearcats (1-1) if they were going to stay unbeaten.
But with Cincinnati needing to keep pace just as badly with UT moving the ball at will, it gambled twice near midfield in fourth-and-short situations. And after A.J. Johnson and Maurice Couch knifed through the Bearcats line to take down Pead, and Jackson and Brent Brewer corralled Zach Collaros two drives later, it was the Vols who hit the jackpot.
"That was it, I mean, those are turnovers," UT coach Derek Dooley said. "People don't realize how big those are, because it's not just the stop, it's field position. Those are about 40-yard stops, turnovers, and it generates juice. You get excited, and those plays are huge.
"We made a lot of mistakes defensively lining up, and that's half the battle. Those guys have a fast pace, they get in a lot of formations and it stressed us. We didn't do a good job of tackling early, but the difference really was the three big stops ... giant plays to allow us to pull away. Those were difference-makers."
The Vols added another game-changer in a cramped situation, shutting down three consecutive plays from their own 1-yard line and forcing a field goal that effectively ended any chance of a Cincinnati comeback.
The unit certainly wasn't perfect after that, allowing another touchdown after inheriting bad field position following a fumble by Vols running back Rajion Neal. And Dooley found plenty of other issues to correct before a much bigger test on the road next week at Florida.
But stepping up in short-yardage, high-pressure situations probably won't be one of them.
"We were really physical and we went out there and took it to them, made the play," Jackson said. "I think we've changed a lot of people's perception of us as far as our game play.
"Last week was kind of an easy game (against Montana), they expected us to win. This week we had to fight really hard, we played really well and I think people have to raise an eyebrow at us and see that we have people in the front-seven that can really do it."
Especially when it can force a spread team to do battle in the trenches.