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Tennessee Football: Defense looks ready to shoulder more of the load for the Vols

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Tennessee’s highly publicized offense didn’t have one of its most stellar days by recent comparison. No matter. They didn’t need to score seven touchdowns to beat Virginia. The Vols’ defense made sure of that.

Tennessee beat the Cavs 49-13 on Saturday in Nashville as Cavs’ quarterback Tony Muskett faced consistently strong pressure in his first start for Virginia and was eventually knocked out of the game in the second half. The Vols sacked Muskett four times, twice by Tyler Baron and twice by James Pearce Jr.

While Tennessee was hot and cold on offense in the first half, the Vols’ defense dominated throughout the entire game. The halftime stats were even more one sided than the 21-3 score during intermission. Tennessee allowed just three first downs, held the Cavs to -0.5-yards per carry, 73 passing yards and just 65 yards total. Eeesh.

The Vols will face much better opponents this season, but UT’s defense clearly appears to be better than it was last season. The Vols were fantastic in making plays behind the line of scrimmage in 2022. That seems as if it will still be the case, but perhaps the Vols can be even more solid overall and more consistent, which was a problem last season. 

Tennessee finished the game yielding just 202 total yards, 96 rushing and 106 passing. The Vols were pretty intimidating with their “Cheetah” package, which consists of a lighter group of defenders that are more adept at rushing the passer and covering receivers than simply being a traditional, all-around defensive unit. The Vols utilized the “Cheetah” against the Cavs on passing downs very effectively, making Virginia’s offensive linemen look like Cheetohs and even making plays at times with just three pass rushers.

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Tennessee’s performance on Saturday isn’t a clear indication that the Vols have a dominant defense. However, as quarterback Joe Milton III finds his way, UT’s defense could certainly help him overcome some mistakes, which were present even in a strong performance against Virginia.

Let’s be clear. No one expected Virginia’s offense to be very good after last season in which the Cavs ranked 103rd in the nation in total offense. The Cavs were led by Muskett, who transferred from Monmouth, and came into the Tennessee game with questions at pretty much every other offensive unit.

The Vols didn’t make things easy for Muskett, who was sacked twice by Pearce Jr., before the signal-caller appeared gimpy early in the second quarter. The impressive thing about Tennessee’s pass rush was that it created havoc at times without anything exotic, like the twists, stunts and blitzes, that the Vols had to lean on last season. Even the television commentators noted that the Vols were just physically dominant against the Cavaliers as they won one-on-one matchups more times than not.

Tennessee may have gotten a bit lax on defense early in the second half when the game was out of hand. However, the Vols buckled down late in the third quarter and ended any chance that the Cavs had of making Saturday’s game a real contest.

Looking for a defense that is much better than last season? The Vols fielded that all day on Saturday. Tennessee gave up just — total yards in the game. With that kind of defense, who needs a legendarily great offense like the Vols had last year?

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