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Tennessee leans on defense in win over Virginia

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Tennessee’s offense started off slow on Saturday against Virginia. A season ago, that probably would’ve meant a bad outcome for the Vols. 

Saturday showed that the Vols will be able to rely on their defense in 2023. Tennessee only scored seven points in the first quarter. The rest was relying on the defense. 

“I thought the way we started in the first half— three, four possessions for sure on the wrong side of the 50-yard line,” head coach Josh Heupel. “They bow up immediately and hold them to a total of three points, I believe. I thought our front four did an unbelievable job of playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage. I thought we tackled well for an opener and did a really good job on third down. Secondary was rock solid early in the football game and that carried over for a majority of the football game.”

James Pearce Jr. and Tyler Baron both shined on the defensive front. Both edge rushers picked up two sacks. Pearce picked up two tackles for loss and Baron had 2.5. 

Pearce’s sacks came up big in particular, with both coming on third down. Any threat of the Hoos getting a first was stopped. In fact, Virginia only had one first down by the time the first quarter concluded. 

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“I’m honestly not surprised by the kind of game he had,” Aaron Beasley said of Pearce. “I’ve seen James grow as a player on the field and off the field. He is taking a huge step and I’m not surprised by his play today.”

Added Pearce, “It always feels great to be productive on the field and fly around with you brothers.”

Virginia was held to just 201 yards on Saturday. The Cavs only picked up 11 first downs against Tennessee. 

The secondary held strong. Was Virginia’s quarterback Tony Musket unproven? Yes. But, the point remains that Tennessee’s offense has improved from 2022. 

“When we first got here, we were at 65 scholarship players,” Heupel said. “We were hit heavy in the portal, a lot of that on the defensive side of it — not all of it. We were extremely thin. We tried to patch it with some transfers. The guys that we brought in the last two (recruiting) cycles, I think, have done a really good job of helping patch our roster. We have more depth. 

“We’ve got really good coaches that do a great job of developing those guys fundamentally. And our guys have bought into how to compete on every single snap, so you put scheme, coaching, physical development in the weight room and depth, and it allows us to be more aggressive on that side of football.”

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