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Tennessee Football: Defense holds its own against Spencer Rattler

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Tennessee football had a complete defensive collapse against South Carolina in 2022. The Gamecocks put up 606 total yards and Spencer Rattler threw for six touchdowns.

The difference from 2022 to 2023 could not have been more different.

Tennessee’s defense shut down Rattler and the Gamecock offense for most of the night. Rattler was held to 169 yards through the air on 24-of-35 passing. Tennessee was even able to get an interception, which Kamal Hadden returned for a touchdown — the first Tennessee defensive touchdown since 2021.

The performance on Saturday in Neyland was a far cry from what happened in Columbia a year ago.

“I think everybody took it personally, as an entire program,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said. Our fans did too. Certainly on the defensive side of the ball too.”

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The pass rush kept Rattler uncomfortable for most of the night. Tennessee picked up six sacks and eight tackles for loss.

James Pearce Jr. led the way with two sacks by himself. Omari Thomas, Joshua Josephs and Kurott Garland also chipped in sacks.

“Felt like we controlled the line of scrimmage for most of the night,” Heupel said. “Relentless effort, energy, technique, fundamentals; our d-line did a great job against the run, harassed the quarterback all night long. He was throwing out of a well, he as on the move. They did an unbelievable job, and we did a good job matching out on the perimeter defensively.”

Pearce has been a defensive lineman that has quickly become an X-factor for the Vols on defense. He has five sacks and seven tackles for loss this season. Anytime he looked up, Heupel said, it felt like Pearce was pressuring Rattler.

The Sophomore’s performance was no surprise to linebacker Elijah Herring.

“I knew since he got here,” Herring said. “He came in with that mindset of ‘I’m that guy.’ He kept it consistent each and every day. We’re not surprised that James makes plays like that. He had a teammate, Mekhi Bigelow, come and say James in the fourth quarter is just a different type of breed. He
just starts making plays out of nowhere. In that fourth quarter he got that sack, and I thought he
might get another one. But we’re not surprised by that.”

The pass rush makes it easier for the secondary to contain receivers. Weaknesses still got exposed in the Vols’ secondary, especially on a 44-yard reception from Ahmarean Brown. Aside from that, the Vols played soundly.

The solid defensive performances are becoming routine, and can help take Tennessee to the next level if the offense finds its footing.

“That’s just preparation,” Herring said. “We knew last year they had some bombs, so we were just really locked in on passing. Knowing who’s playing front side, knowing who’s playing back side, knowing who
we got, knowing who we need to pass off. So we were really locked in on that this week.”

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