The trip to Gainesville was not friendly to the Tennessee football defense. In fact, it is the only game the Vols have allowed over 100 rushing yards this season.
Saturday night’s 45-14 win over UTSA saw the Tennessee defense of the first two games show up. The Vols held UTSA to just 88 rushing yards. For comparison, they held Austin Peay to 79 yards on the ground and Virginia to 95.
“We pride ourselves on being a defense that we don’t allow teams to run the ball on us,” defensive lineman Omari Thomas said. “Last week, that was what happened. We approached this week just
getting back our edge. That was we as a d-line, as a defense, we just want to play with that edge. I feel like when we come out and play with an edge it’s hard for teams to mess with us, honestly.”
Going into Florida last weekend, Tennessee was No. 1 in the nation in sacks and No. 2 in tackles for loss. That defensive prowess didn’t travel to Florida.
It showed up in Knoxville against UTSA, though.
“I feel like we showed a lot of maturity just in the way we approached this week,” Thomas said. “Guys, it wasn’t too much talking, but you could tell how much guys really care about what we’re going to do as a team and what we needed to do to get back out there and win this football game today. I really feel like I really saw how dedicated our team is to winning and to being the best on the field, the best team on the field every Saturday.”
Aaron Beasley continued to lead the way on the defensive side. He finished with nine total tackles. The rotation was heavy on the defensive side of the ball — 28 players registered a tackle on Saturday.
Freshmen defensive back Cristian Conyer, linebacker Jalen Smith and freshman defensive back Jordan Matthews made their debuts against UTSA.
“It was the plan,” head coach Josh Heupel said of the defensive rotation. “I told you guys this past week that the flow of the football game a week ago, the way it transpired, we had planned on rotating more than we did. That could be on coaches, the situation, whatever. It’s going to be physical football games as we go. We’re going to continue to need to play a lot of guys and guys that have a hot hand at whatever position. There will be guys we’ll need in critical moments as this season goes on. But anticipating, again, playing more guys than we did a week ago.”
UTSA had 319 total yards against Tennessee. If you take out the two drives where Tennessee’s defense struggled in the third quarter and gave up UTSA touchdowns, the Roadrunners would’ve only finished with 178 yards.
The two drives saw the defense get into a “lull” as Heupel saw it. The defense can take no break in SEC play. The two drives aside, the defense was solid and gave the Vols more confidence heading into South Carolina.
“We took great effort, we really focused on that this week,” Thomas said. “As far as drills, extra film, we made sure that nobody is running the ball on us. We want to just continue to grow in that, because that’s what we pride ourselves on as a defense.”