Oct. 24, 2013
KNOXVILLE - Tennessee couldn't have asked for better momentum heading into its meeting with No. 1 Alabama Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium at 3:30 p.m. on CBS.
THE CATCH HEARD ROUND THE WORLD
Freshman Marquez North made a name for himself for one of the most clutch catches that any of the Vol coaches had seen in their careers.
North, who has a habit of reeling in one-handed catches for big yardage, outmuscled Ahmad Christian for a 39-yard gain to put the Vols in field goal position and set up the victory.
"Up there, right there, especially where we are at as a program, just everything that catch meant," said wide receiver coach Zach Azzanni. "But I tell you what there were a lot of plays that led up to that catch to help that out. Justin Worley made an unbelievable throw as he got hit and we got a piece of the defense end with the back and the line held up we just get out small part with making the catch."
North's name was trending WORLDWIDE for 15 minutes after his one-handed, game-changing grab and nationally for 25 minutes.
But the play would never have been made if there wasn't a mindset change to attack.
"Attacking the ball in the air and going to get it," said Azzanni of North's mindset. "He wasn't going that early on in camp and early on in the season. There were a couple that he could have done that earlier in the season and he didn't. We have really focused on that. He came up big and used all the things that we did and worked on and came down with a couple."
Azzanni isn't surprised in North's ability. The freshman finished the game with just three catches, but for 102 yards.
"The first two [catches]I know how they happened," said Azzanni. "He went and he did what we had been working on."
The final grab...
"Now that last one was just him being him," said Azzanni. "He made a heck of a play. You don't teach that one. He was confident because he made those first two. It was really neat for him to come down with that, just to give him some confidence and give everyone confidence."
North's on-field confidence hasn't changed who he is off the field.
"He is the same kid," said Azzanni. "He is pretty even keeled that is what I like about him. He is pretty simple and pretty even keeled and he comes to work which is why he is improving."
Speaking for the first time since senior kicker Michael Palardy drilled a 19-yard field goal to snap the Vols' 19-game losing streak to ranked teams, special teams coach Mark Elder said Palardy's success on Saturdays starts at Haslam Field.
"It comes down to he is consistent in practice," said Elder. "That is the biggest thing. You are going to play on Saturday how you practice during the week. He comes out here and he performs well in practice and he takes that confidence of doing well Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to the field on Saturday and does well."
Not only is Palardy shining as a placekicker in 2013, but the Florida native is getting it done on the punt and kickoff units, where he's sent 16 deep for touchbacks.
"Being able to get the ball deep in the end zone is huge," said Elder. "Being able to place the ball in the proper spot, if it is not in the end zone is also equally important because everyone is sending their coverage unit a certain direction, whether it is middle, right or left.
"It is critical that if it's not deep in the end zone where they are taking a knee that you get it in the right spot. He has done a really nice job as far as the depth of his kicks, here and there he can improve slightly on his accuracy with that. But by in large he is doing a nice job as far as punting, placing, kicking and kicking off."
On the other side of the ball this week, Elder believes special teams have played a huge role in the Crimson Tide's No. 1 ranking and 7-0 record.
"Absolutely... their punting, I think they are 10th in the country; they are averaging something like 47 yards a punt. He (Cody Mandell) is outstanding. Kicking off, they are difficult to get the ball past the 20-yard line. I am certain that the kicker can put the ball deep in the end zone, but they just put it inside the five and force you to return the ball. They do a remarkable job in their coverage unit.
"Obviously, a couple big returns for touchdowns, they blocked a punt and they are extremely dynamic in the return game. Their special teams, just as much as their defense or offense, it is one-third of the reason why they are winning their ball games there is no doubt."
FLIPPING A SWITCH
Forty-four consecutive games.
Senior offensive lineman Ja'Wuan James has started every game of his Tennessee career at right tackle. Staying at the top of your game for that long is tough, not to mention staying healthy in the trenches.
UT offensive line coach Don Mahoney thinks the way James' presents himself off the field and his ability to flip the switch is what's gotten him here.
"He has to be in a mindset - there's a time to be serious and there's a time that he is who he really is and like you said, he's kind-hearted, gets along with the guys in the manner which he's himself.
"Then, when it's time to be business, whether it's in the weight room, meetings, on the field, it's like coach said, you cross those lines, you flip a switch, and that's exactly what he does."
It's hasn't been a calendar year, but Mahoney knows he's going to miss James when his senior campaign is over.
"He's definitely one that I'm going to miss being around, because even on gameday, he knows how to keep us all in check with his personality and the things he'll say and see. Extremely intelligent - he sees the things we're both discussing on the sideline and when I watch the film on Sunday. He's right on with everything that he's said.
"There's not seeing things that aren't there. There are not things that are happening that aren't there. It's exactly what it is. He's a very intelligent, extremely smart and very trustworthy."
FACING A FAMILIAR FOE
The Iron Bowl, the annual clash between Auburn and Alabama, is undoubtedly one of the top rivalries in football.
Having spent the past four seasons with the Tigers - winning the 2010 season BCS National Championship - Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen is very familiar with the Crimson Tide.
But in just a short time on Rocky Top, he now has a firm hold on the importance of the Third Saturday in October, which is actually being played on the fourth Saturday in October this season.
"It is just as big," Thigpen said on the Tennessee-Alabama rivalry. "Our guys are really into it this week. They know it is one of the biggest games of the year with them being the No. 1 team in America. You have to get up for that team and I think our guys have accepted the challenge."
Thigpen's experience at Auburn has also made him very familiar with the atmosphere at Bryant-Denny Stadium
"That is probably one of the most electric stadiums in the country," said Thigpen. "It is probably one of the better ones in the country. It is going to be loud. Their fans are all into it. This is the best of the best. This is what you play for in the SEC. If you match up with those guys it says a lot about you.
"That program, year in and year out is going to be top five in the country. This year they are No. 1, two national championships in a row. What better game to make a statement for Tennessee Football?"
Two national championships in two years, but Thigpen believes this Crimson Tide team to be even stronger.
"It seems like they have gotten stronger," said Thigpen. "They're younger than years in the past; they've been an older football team. This year they have a lot of young talent, you look at (Kenyan) Drake and T.J. Yeldon both of those guys are young. Christion Jones has really stepped up and been their main target at wide receiver. It just looks like everyone has gotten better and better and more confident. They are playing really well together now."