Nov. 21, 2011
KNOXVILLE - For the second consecutive season, Tennessee will head into its final game of the season needing a sixth win to secure bowl eligibility.
And for the second straight year, all the Vols will be worried about is the opponent at hand, Kentucky.
"I know a lot of people are going to want to change the focus away from Kentucky to other things like streaks and bowls and all that, but it is so important that our team takes the same approach as they did last week and they take the same approach during the game as they did Vanderbilt," head coach Derek Dooley said during his week Monday media luncheon. :Like every SEC game, it's going to be hard. It's on the road and they played Georgia to the wire. It's their last home game, so I know how emotional it is for any team on their last home game.
"We have a big challenge and we will see if can live up to it. If we can people will be feeling pretty good and if we can't it will be kind of a disappointing year. That is where we are."
Last season, Tennessee defeated Kentucky for the 26th consecutive time to earn what ultimately became a berth in the 2010 Music City Bowl. The Vols can punch a ticket to their 50th bowl appearance with a win - the second-most for any school.
While the added motivation to continue its season is there, Tennessee is playing with the goal of beating its SEC rival.
"We mention that fact that if we win we are bowl eligible," Dooley said. "We mentioned that last week, but you don't really play to go to a bowl. You play to beat the team you are playing. It's important to understand what is out there to motivate you a little bit. When it gets tough it's important to show a little more grit and the ability to persevere when it gets tough, but your focus has to be on the guy you are going against and what you plays are, what your execution is, what's your technique and that is what we are trying to emphasize."
Run And Gun
The Vols had their best individual rushing effort of the season in Saturday's win over Vanderbilt as Tauren Poole gained a season-best 107 yards. Sophomore Rajion Neal also added a nice change of pace adding 29 yards for a total of 136. Part of the success could be attributed to Tennessee's use of the pistol formation for snaps to quarterback Tyler Bray, who was returning from a broken thumb.
"(The formation) allows me to be more patient," said Poole, who had his third 100-yard rushing game of the season. "It allows me to see the holes a lot faster and that's exactly what happened. The O-Line did a great job of getting on their blocks and running their feet the whole entire game. I was just hitting the holes. It's just exciting to have the run game back. It's towards the end of the year, but we're winning games and that's all that matters.
"I think I get the ball deeper into the backfield. It's kind of like I can see the line-of-scrimmage and see what hole I want to hit as fast as I can. In the SEC, holes open and close as fast as that. When you see a hole now, you have to hit it as fast as possible."
But the linemen say they didn't notice a major difference.
"It was normal, during practice, we didn't even notice we were in pistol," right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "It was just the regular scheme that we do."
James said the line gave a harder more determined effort against the Commodores. "I could definitely tell a difference will all five of us," James said. "We are out there fighting and getting after it all game. I feel like we went in there more focused and tried to to the right thing on every play and battle them every play for four quarters. We haven't done that a lot of four quarters this season, but we did that (Saturday) and we were successful."
Left tackle Dallas Thomas talked about the Vols getting back to basics to help with the protection and ground game.
"With us getting back to the scheme of things, just thinking about what we have to do on our targets and our first step coming off the ball," Thomas said. "Coach was really focusing on that for us this week, hard."
For Poole, the big game was meaningful, coming in his final game at Neyland Stadium.
"I've been kind of unproductive all year," Poole said. "I haven't been able to get a 100-yard game to save my life, but I got one and it ended off well on senior night. I wouldn't want it any other way. I'm glad it ended well in my last game at Neyland.
"It's just great because the offensive line did well. I just say that they had the 100-yard game and not me because it's obvious on the film that they blocked well the entire game. They knew that. They had the fire in their eyes that they wanted to win and wanted to play the entire game, even when we were down. It's just exciting to see."
Defense Garnering Recognition
After posting one if its best performances of the season against Vanderbilt last week, the Tennessee defense has received some well-deserved recognition both at the conference level and nationally.
In addition to having two players earn honors from the SEC, the Vols also had another named one of four finalists for the Capital One Cup Impact Performance of the Week as well as the College Football Performance Awards Defensive Back of the Week.
For the first time since 2007 and just 11th time in school history, UT had multiple players on the weekly SEC Players of the Week list with senior Malik Jackson taking home co-defensive lineman of the week honors and linebacker Curt Maggitt being named to league's top freshman performer.
Playing in his final game at Neyland Stadium, Jackson was a force all over the field, amassing six tackles, including 1.5 behind the line of scrimmage for a loss of 16. He also had the fourth forced fumble of his collegiate career and a pair of quarterback hurries.
"I feel like we just played our game," Jackson said. "Coach Thompson taught us to go out there and play each series and then come back to the sideline for adjustments and then go back out to play again. We just tried to play our game the best we could and be physical up front and at the end of the day that's what we did."
Just a few feet behind Jackson at one of the outside linebacker positions, Maggitt recorded the most complete game of his young career. The West Palm Beach, Fla., native tallied a personal-best seven stops, including 2.5 tackles for loss which marks the most by a Tennessee player this season.
"Curt is one of those guys that is going to work as hard as possible," fellow linebacker Austin Johnson said. "We always watch extra film, especially on Thursdays with Coach Wilcox. He's one of those guys that's going to come ask questions and that's what he needs to do. He does really well. He works really hard in practice and he's just going to keep developing. He has a long way to go, but he's going to be a great player."
Not to be outdone, however, sophomore nickel back Eric Gordon picked up a pair of national honors after his game-winning 90-yard interception return for a touchdown in overtime.
The Nashville native and Hillsboro High School product's thrilling play against his hometown team netted him national defensive back player of the week accolades from CFPA, as well as a spot among the top four performances on the Capital One Cup Impact Performance of the Week poll on ESPN.com.
"He's found a home in the nickel spot and I think we have gotten a good comfort level with Eric in the nickel spot," Dooley said. "It has allowed him to use his strengths and be aggressive and make some plays. When you make a bad mistake and you are in the deep part of the field or you are playing a guy at man to man in the corner it's a devastating effect. Eric has a playmaking mentality, which I wish more of our guys had on the back end, I do, and it's a great quality to have in them. That is why we want him out on the field and if he can just keep that within the framework of the system and know when to be aggressive and know when to not, he is going to make more and more plays."
A pair of seniors who played their final game at Neyland Stadium on Saturday couldn't help but thinking back to the way a couple of UT's games ended in 2010 after Eric Gordon returned an overtime interception 90 yards to the end zone.
Much like last year's games against LSU and UNC, the Vols initially thought it was over, until the final play went under review.
"I definitely had that `Oh no, not again,' (feeling) when I looked back, saw the penalty flag and saw the refs talking," senior linebacker Austin Johnson said. "At the end of the day, the right call ended up being the outcome of the game."
"I ran on the field," Poole said of his reaction. "I was excited and thought the game was over. It was the same thing I did at LSU. I ran on the field and ran right past the flag. I looked down and saw the flag and I (thought), `Come on.' Like (Austin Johnson) said, it ended up like it should have. His knee obviously wasn't down. I'm just glad we got the win. That's all I was looking forward to, getting the `W.'"
For 14 seniors that have given their all for Tennessee, it was a hard ending to beat at Neyland Stadium.
"The feeling was overwhelming," Johnson said. "It was such a joyous and awesome feeling. I looked over when they threw the ball and I saw E.G. (Eric Gordon) make a great play on it. I knew his knee didn't go down. Just seeing him run down the field and everybody just kind of following him was an awesome feeling. When everybody charged the field, it was just a good way to top (things) off at Neyland."