Conventional wisdom was Tennessee football wins games by outscoring teams. They have a Heisman frontrunner at quarterback, multiple All-American receivers and a cutting-edge offensive mind who relies on tempo.
As a result, when facing a ranked team like the Kentucky Wildcats, who like to slow the game down and make things ugly, they were naturally going to be tested. In the process, they revealed another side of themselves.
The Vols beat Kentucky with only 422 yards of total offense. What really stood out was them holding the Wildcats to just 205 yards of total offense.
“Defensively, they did an unbelievable job controlling, dominating the line of scrimmage,” Josh Heupel said in his postgame press conference. “Did a great job matching out guys on the backend. Played real ball tonight. Suffocating defense. It was fun to watch those guys.”
That “real ball” quote seemed like a shot at Kentucky quarterback Will Levis. Earlier in the week, Levis referred to slowing the game down and long drives as real football.
For most of their wins in the Heupel era, the Vols have been scoring quickly and pouring it on. Even last year at Kentucky, they scored on the first play from scrimmage and the third play of their second try.
This year, though, they scored their second touchdown on a 15-play drive, running it down their throats. That was another side of them they hadn’t shown, and Heupel said their best football is still ahead of them.
“It’s a constant growth and evolution to who you are individually and collectively,” he said. “I do like this football team because they do have good practice habits. You can tell that they care about each other and they’re going to play hard for each other.”
Beyond that drive, though, the story was still about the defense. It was only Tennessee football’s second game not gaining at least 500 yards this year, the first being at the Pittsburgh Panthers.
They won both because the defense stepped up. In this case, the story was obviously the secondary. NFL Draft prospect Will Levis was held to under 100 yards passing and threw three picks.
Doneiko Slaughter was the star. He laid a huge hit that forced one interception, which Juwan Mitchell grabbed, and then he had one on his own. This all happened as he moved to cornerback after playing safety in previous games.
“He had trained at corner,” Heupel said of Slaughter. “Just with all the moving pieces that we had, he had been playing at safety. Thought he went over there (to corner) and did a great job early on and in the football game. His versatility is big for us, obviously.”
Warren Burrell, Tennessee football’s No. 1 cornerback, was lost for the year early in the season. They have been without Kamal Hadden and Christian Charles the past three weeks.
Then Jaylen McCollough had to miss the past two games at safety. This all was a huge part of the Vols’ secondary giving up over 300 yards through the air, twice over 400 yards, for four straight games.
However, with McCollough back, Slaughter was able to move over to cornerback opposite Brandon Turnage, who also had a pick. It was a huge upgrade all the way around. Heupel said McCollough did a great job in his return.
“He’s a leader on our defense, a quarterback in some respects,” he said. “Just being able to get all three levels of the defense in sync, it was awesome to have him back out there for us.”
Things were still solid on the line of scrimmage. Kentucky did have one long drive in which Chris Rodriguez Jr. torched them on the ground, resulting in a touchdown.
Still, they averaged slightly under two yards a carry for the game. Byron Young, Da’Jon Terry, Omari Thomas and Tyler Baron all had sacks. Terry also blocked an extra point.
After Rodriguez’s touchdown, Kentucky was effectively shut down. They had five yards in the second half until their final drive. Heupel said there was no change schematically.
“I thought in the football game, the penetration on the edge, the interior too, forced (Rodriguez) to bounce some things and not get started,” he said.
Defense and long offensive drives weren’t the only ways Tennessee football proved it could win differently Saturday. The Vols also made some special teams plays.
Dee Williams had a 44-yard punt return. The Vols got to the backfield and forced an 18-yard punt. Paxton Brooks had a 51-yard punt and pinned two inside the 20. Then there was the extra point that Terry blocked.
“Special teams did a great job,” Heupel said. “They created plays here in the early part of the season through their return game, and our guys did a great job. Paxton (Brooks) did a great job all night long and our cover units, too.”
Of course, one exception to this was Chase McGrath missing a second extra point in three weeks and missing a 37-yard field goal. However, that appears to be an aberration more than anything else.
Also, it’s not like the offense didn’t have its fair share of big plays. Hendon Hooker had touchdown passes to Jalin Hyatt of 55 and 31 yards. However, Tennessee football’s defense was the story of the night.