Sept. 10, 2011
BY JOSH PATE
KNOXVILLE -- Three plays are what Derek Dooley circled as game changers in Tennessee's 45-23 victory over Cincinnati on Saturday night. And all three were on defense.
The Vols (2-0) got Neyland Stadium rocking with their offensive production against the Bearcats (1-1) behind Tyler Bray's 405-yard outburst and 100-yard efforts from two receivers and the tailback. Yet three defensive stops are what maintained momentum in a back-and-forth contest, and made it a one-sided affair.
Tennessee stopped Cincinnati two times on fourth-and-1 and held the Bearcats out of the end zone when it was first-and-goal from the UT 1.
"The difference, really, on defense was the three big stops - the two fourth-and-1s at midfield were two giant plays, and then the goal-line stop in the third quarter," Dooley said. "Those were the difference makers."
With Tennessee leading 21-14 and the points piling up, the Bearcats tried their shot at retaliation but got stopped at midfield for a fourth-down attempt. With just a yard to make, the Bearcats handed the ball to senior tailback Isaiah Pead. He lost a yard when A.J. Johnson and Maurice Couch pounced on him.
"It was really big," linebacker Austin Johnson said of the stops. "When you're at third-and-1, a lot of people may think we're getting ready for another series, but we felt we could stop them and were able to stop them. Just getting that momentum and confidence really brings out a lot in the whole team."
Johnson finished with a team-high six tackles.
Two possessions later and the Vols still leading by a touchdown, Cincinnati again failed on a fourth-down conversion.
Just after pushing the ball past midfield, the Bearcats faced fourth-and-1 at the UT 46. This time, quarterback Zach Collaros called his own number on a draw and was stopped by Malik Jackson and Brent Brewer as the Vols stuffed the line with players.
"It was kind of predictable," Johnson said. "I had seen them do that on film, with an empty set and the quarterback running it. That made it a lot easier."
Dooley said the two midfield stops were essential for maintaining momentum with the score so close.
"Those are turnovers," Dooley said. "People don't realize how big those are. It's not just the stop, but it's field position. If they punt it, you saw what their punter can do. He put it on the 1. So those are about 40-yard stops, turnovers. And it generates juice. You get a little excited."
Jackson said the Vols' front seven have been on a mission to show they're not pushovers. Jackson, in fact, is the only Tennessee defensive lineman returning with significant experience from last year.
"We tried to show we've got better guys in the trenches, because it all starts in the trenches," Jackson said. "We went out there and took it to them. I think we're changing a lot of people's perception. We came out and fought really hard and played really well. I think we're showing that we've got people in the front seven who can do it, and in the secondary."
Perhaps the biggest stop of all came in the third quarter and the Vols up 35-14, and it wasn't really a stop at all. Cincinnati drove the field behind a 46-yard pass, and then a 24-yard gain through the air that was stopped at the UT 1-yard line. Facing first-and-goal from the 1, Collaros ran twice for no gain. He then dropped back and threw incomplete when he was rushed by UT's Jacques Smith. A delay of game penalty shoved the Bearcats back to the 6, and their field goal attempt was good to make it 35-17 Vols.
Dooley, however, was the first to recognize that the defensive effort took some time to settle in. Cincinnati's Pead broke free on its first drive of the game for a 65-yard scoring run. Then the Vols continued to have difficulty tackling the Bearcats' shifty runner. He finished with 155 yards on the night.
"We made a lot of mistakes defensively lining up," Dooley said. "That's half the battle. Those guys are fast-paced in lining up with a lot of formations, and it stressed us. We didn't do a good job of tackling early."
Dooley, however, added that he and the coaching staff stressed adjustment as the game unfolded.
"The adjustment was tackling," Dooley quipped. "Let's line up right and tackle. That was our adjustment. Line up where you're supposed to line up, not where you want to line up. And when the runner takes off, tackle him.
"Our defense settled in. They had 400 yards of offense (396 total), but what you can't do against these teams is give up that 60-yard run. We settled in there pretty good. It helps when they're not stopping you."