Nov. 13, 2012
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The Tennessee-Vanderbilt series has been one-sided in recent times with the Vols winning 28 of the last 29 meetings dating to 1983, but last season's overtime thriller re-kindled a rivalry that was the reason General Neyland was hired to lead the Vols in 1925.
When Neyland was promoted to head coach, his primary charge from then-Tennessee Dean Nathan Dougherty was to "even the score with Vanderbilt."
The Vols have great respect for the 2012 edition of the Commodores, who are at 6-4 and are bowl-eligible for the second year in a row for the first time in school history. The Commodores are seeking their first five-game win streak since the 2008 season.
"I think it's going to be the same thing as last year," said Justin Hunter about the competitiveness expected on Saturday. "They have a good record this year, so they're really hyped and ready to play us. They know they had a close game against us last year and they could have won. So they're going to come in fired up and we're going to be the same way."
The excitement of last year's 27-21 overtime win on Eric Gordon's interception return for a touchdown is one of the contributing reasons the Vols have one of their most potent weapons in 2012.
"I know it's going to be a good game, a big game," said junior receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who attended last year's game at Neyland Stadium. "Last year, I came on my visit and saw all the hype and everything when they went into overtime, so I know it's going to be a pretty good experience."
For Zach Rogers, a Nashville native, the game at Vanderbilt always has special meaning.
"It means a lot," Rogers. "I've got a lot of family and friends coming to this one. I definitely want to do my best to make them proud of me, but at the same time, I'm still fighting for this team and we're fighting for each other to get these last two wins.
On the field, Tennessee has taken note of the Commodores' strengths led by quarterback Jordan Rodgers, who has played well during VU's four-game winning streak.
"He does just about everything well," Daniel Hood said about Rodgers. "[UT's defense] will try to get a read on him at the line with the hand motions he does and you can't really get any. And then on every play, he turns around and he looks the same - he'll do a simple handoff and make it look like a bootleg. He'll freeze that backside in from running it down. We'll look at that and we see his discipline as well. Then you look at some of the throws he's made this year - they're really good and of course, he's a fast guy."
On defense, Vanderbilt is allowing just 18.0 points per game (16th in the NCAA) and also ranks in the top 25 in the NCAA in total defense (23rd), pass defense (14th) and tackles for loss (fourth).
"They're like a couple of teams we've seen," said Hunter. "They play a lot of Cover 3, a lot of zone with just one high basically."
While their scheme certainly helps, much of the Commodore's success comes from the confidence they play with.
"They're still a very good defense," Rogers said. "They're still competing in the SEC every week. They believe in what they do and they execute it very well."
EYES ON A BOWL PRIZEAn experienced junior with four years under his belt, defensive lineman, Daniel Hood isn't taking anything this season for granted when it comes to the game.
Hood takes all aspects of the game, both on and off the field, personally and knows what needs to be done for his team to end its season with a bowl.
"I think [going to a bowl] can be taken for granted," Hood said. "I have the same motivation [as last year] this year, if not more.
"That's what is great about the bowl system. It's awesome whether you're going to the Music City Bowl or the Liberty Bowl. I can speak from experience. I felt like we were in the National Championship game when we went to the Music City Bowl. It was an awesome experience, and all that time we get to practice too, it helps a lot."
Before these players can concentrate on the extra month with their teammates and extra practices without class to attend to, a win against Vanderbilt and Kentucky are in order. With two more wins comes a need for improvement from this Tennessee team, Hood says.
"I thought there was [improvement last week], especially on the defensive line," Hood said. "I can't speak for the secondary, but I know for us, simplifying it allowed us to play a lot faster and to know what our keys were. Every play they ran we had actually seen in practice, not just seeing it once, but actually being able to work on it multiple times."
Besides focusing on the last two games of the season, Hood says the extra media attention on his head coach can be distracting if you aren't careful.
"Coach Dooley preaches all the time that you have to learn to put it away," the Knoxville native said. "It's a great lesson for us, because we're learning how to do things that a lot of people don't get to - being able to put away the stress and work through the adversity."
With the attention comes extra pressure on the players, but under the lessons of Coach Dooley, his team is prepared to handle whatever is thrown at them.
"As a player, I don't try to look at it as playing for Coach Dooley's job," Hood said. "To me, I just look at it as getting better every day. I can't talk to you about X's and O's, the only thing I know is defensive line and offensive line.
"I know that as a person, he's one of the best people that I've had around in my life and probably the second-most important person in my life, too. I wouldn't be where I am today without someone like Coach Dooley."
The redshirt junior has learned enough in his time at Tennessee to understand what needs to happen and do what it takes to complete his task. Hood says the defense can definitely play as well against Vanderbilt as they did in the first half against Mizzou.
"With Coach Dooley simplifying things it's allowing guys to see everything in practice and see exactly what it's going to look like," Hood said.
As the players finish out their classes and their football season, more than just a few things are on the line, but Hood says he's ready to take it on, beginning against Vanderbilt on Saturday.
NO UNDERDOGS IN RIVALRIESSeniors Willie Bohannon and Zach Rogers know that when it comes to rivalries, records don't matter.
During their time at Tennessee, the Vols have remained undefeated against in-state rival Vanderbilt, but each game has not come easily for Tennessee, including an overtime victory last season.
This year, Vanderbilt has already earned its bid to a bowl and has won its last four games, three in the SEC heading into the meeting with the Vols.
"There's been a definite change," said Rogers. "But give all the credit to Vandy. They're doing a great job. They're confident in what they do and they're doing a great job this season under new coaching. They believe in what they do. We've got to be what Tennessee is and carry the fight to Vandy."
Despite Tennessee looking like the underdog heading into this match up, Bohannon knows that underdogs don't exist in rivalry games.
"It is a rivalry game so there really is no underdog if you think about it," said Bohannon. "Last year they were the underdog and years before. They still played us hard. We are going to play them hard. It is a rivalry. It's Vanderbilt."
The Vols will put their all into this game, because they know if they win out, they are headed to a bowl.
"We're really just trying to finish the season out," said Rogers. "We're playing each Saturday as they come to us. We can't look too far ahead in the future. We've just got to focus on the present. I've got one more game left in this stadium right here, so that's kind of on my mind. But we're obviously focused on Vandy this week."
"We want to go to a bowl game," said Bohannon. "It is more based on that than it is that it is Vanderbilt or Kentucky. We want to go to a bowl game. We don't want to be sitting at home during the postseason so we have to win these two games."
REPLACING MAGGITTThe Tennessee defense suffered a big blow last Saturday when sophomore linebacker Curt Maggitt was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
In his absence, junior Jacques Smith will return to the starting lineup at the SAM linebacker position, while senior Willie Bohannon will spell both Smith and sophomore Jordan Williams, who will start at JACK.
"When a brother falls down, we all have to pick it up for him," Smith said. "We are going to pick up the slack and, hopefully, there will be no difference."
Exactly how and how much each player will be utilized will be predicated on the Vols' upcoming opponents as much as anything.
"A lot of it depends on what package we are in," Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley said. "We have Jacques, we have Jordan Williams, we have Willie Bo at outside linebacker, and then [Raiques] Crump gets in the mix a little bit. But really right now between Jordan, Jacques and Willie we kind of have three for two spots."
Maggitt's injury leaves some big shoes to fill as he has recorded 30 tackles, including a team-high 5.0 TFLs for a loss of 37 yards this season, but Bohannon feels that he and his teammates are prepared for the challenge.
"I am going to have to step up like I have been doing whenever we had to rotate," Bohannon said. "It is really nothing different, we have been doing this the whole season. We all have learned both sides and it is the reason we have learned both sides since training camp. Right now, Jacques and Jordan will be outside and we will rotate from there."
The most difficult adjustment to make will be simply getting used to not having Maggitt around them on the field and the sidelines.
"It is going to be hard because we are used to him being out there," Bohannon said. "It would probably be the same if it happened to me and he would be out there. We both know our positions, it is just that we have been out there together and it is kind of crazy now that he is out."