Oct. 10, 2009
BY DREW EDWARDS
Just before lights out Friday night in the team hotel, Tennessee's coaches and players talked about how much they believed in each other and how lucky they were to have a chance to play a football game together the next morning.
"Man, it was awesome," cornerback Art Evans said. "It was a lot different than any meeting or speaker we've had. It could bring tears to your eyes."
Only a few hours later, it was lights out for Georgia inside Neyland Stadium.
The Vols took control and kept it in a 45-19 romp over Georgia before 103,261 fans to claim their first SEC victory of the season and the first of head coach Lane Kiffin's tenure. More than that, though, the Vols (3-3, 1-2 SEC) displayed confidence in each other on the field.
That confidence got a boost well before the Vol Walk. Or even before the Vols loaded the busses Saturday morning.
Just before the team went upstairs to their rooms for the night on Friday, coaches and players talked about how much trust they had in each other. Graduate assistant and former UT defensive back Inky Johnson's talk was particularly moving, Evans and others said.
"It gave us a chance to see how much our coaches trust in us," Evans said. "We had this idea that they trust in us and they believe in us. But for some of them to get up and tell us how much they trust in us and believe in us and what they sacrificed to be here, it made you want to play with more emotion, like you were playing with a chip on your shoulder, like you owed it to them and the guys who played before you and paved the way for you."
And the idea was for Tennessee to start paving the way against a division rival.
"(Kiffin) made a big emphasis on beating these guys," safety Eric Berry said. "He made a promise to us that we wouldn't lose to them anymore. He's not going to let Georgia beat us."
Kiffin echoed that message all week and again Friday night.
"We had a very heart-to-heart meeting last night with the whole coaching staff and some of the players on the team also," Berry said. "You had to be in the room to feel the intensity and feel where those guys are coming from. It did something to us. I think you saw today as far as how we played."
Tennessee's confidence - and the effect of a coach's confidence in a player - was most evident in the play of quarterback Jonathan Crompton.
Maligned and booed by fans at times this season, Crompton had his best day in a Tennessee uniform. He finished with 310 yards and four touchdowns on 20-for-27 passing. His only interception came on a tipped pass, albeit one that Kiffin said was thrown behind the intended receiver.
But as he's done since training camp, Kiffin stayed behind his quarterback even after Georgia's Bacarri Rambo took that interception 28 yards for a touchdown. On the very next drive, Crompton threw three straight passes and completed all four of his throws.
"Any position doesn't want to have look over their shoulder and be worried about it," Crompton said. "That's when you play timid. When you just go out there and play ball - I wouldn't say play reckless - but play within the system and play within yourself, it pays off. I think our whole team's doing that right now."
Kiffin called the defense, which never allowed Georgia (3-3, 2-2 SEC) inside UT's 20-yard line at any point, the story of the day. That's hard to argue, considering the only points the defense gave up came on a 52-yard field goal.
But equally important for the Vols was finding a way to win Saturday heading into an open date.
"We had a great week of preparation," said tailback Montario Hardesty, who finished with 97 yards on 20 carries, including a 39-yard touchdown run. "You don't go out there on Saturdays and turn the switch on. I think we played with great energy today. It was a good game for me, but it was a better game for our team."
It's no doubt a nice win, one that puts Tennessee just three wins away from becoming bowl eligible. But it's far from an end-all.
"We are excited about the game, don't get me wrong," Kiffin said. "But I've said it on the other side, one game will not define us as a team. One game will not define us as a player. We have a ton of work to do, and a long ways to go. We have a good bye week, and we need to get better."