Vols 'D flexes in dominant win ahead of UGA tilt

Vols ‘D flexes in dominant win ahead of UGA tilt

Knoxville, Tenn. – No one has stopped Tennessee’s record offense all season, and now, heading into a potential showdown with Georgia, the Vols’ defense is showing all signs of peaking at the right time.

The No. 3 Vols smothered No. 19 Kentucky in a 44-6 win Saturday night at Neyland Stadium, a game that saw Tennessee hold Kentucky scoreless for the final three quarters of the game. The Vols harassed Will Levis, the projected first-round pick, in three interceptions and sacked him four times.

Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, who makes a strong case for the Heisman Trophy and threw three more touchdown passes against the Wildcats, said he wasn’t the least bit surprised to see the defense playing at a level raised.

“I see the defensive guys doing extra work, whether it’s on the Jugs [gun]that you can see these guys making great plays on the ball and going out and playing with their hair on fire,” Hooker said. passionate about this field of practice.

One of the best signs for the Vols to enter the Georgia game is that they are starting to sort things out in their secondary, which took a few pieces earlier in the season. Junior Doneiko Slaughter started as a cornerback against Kentucky after lining up safe earlier this season and had two huge plays.

In other words, he might not be returning to safety anytime soon. The 6-foot, 190-pound Slaughter delivered a crushing blow to Kentucky receiver Dane Key in the second quarter, forcing a deflection that linebacker Juwan Mitchell intercepted and returned 48 yards. Then, in the third quarter, Slaughter produced Tennessee’s third interception of the game when he had great coverage and made a bouncing play on the sideline.

“I just like punching people, obviously,” Slaughter said. “That’s why I play defense, but my guys are there to help make that game too, jostling for the ball. That’s what’s going to happen.”

The Vols were without three of their best cornerbacks on Saturday, including Warren Burrell, who is out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Kamal Hadden and Christian Charles were also injured.

Redshirt junior Brandon Turnage was pressured into more action and responded with an interception. When asked if he liked punching as much as Slaughter, Turnage joked, “Yeah, I like punching, probably not as much as Doneiko. He’s a Slaughter.”

Tennessee also picked up senior safety Jaylen McCollough, who returned to the lineup Saturday after missing the last two games. McCollough was charged with aggravated assault on October 9 after a man mistakenly entered his apartment, and McCollough injured his right hand after punching the man.

A major difference with this Tennessee defense is that the Vols play more people on this side of the ball. Coach Josh Heupel said in the offseason that creating more depth in defense would be key. The Vols sometimes wore out a year ago on defense.

“One of our defensive strengths is the ability to rotate and play with a lot of guys. He’s the next man,” Heupel said. “It lets you go out and play as hard as you can. It lets you go into the second half and be fresh and come out and compete hard on every play.”

The Vols are also able to play more complementary football than in the past and don’t have to rely on offense as much to score more than 40 points in every game.

“That’s what good teams do. You start playing against each other, and when one struggles, the other picks them up,” Heupel said. “There have been times during the year where that has happened, whether it’s the offense holding it all together, the defense holding it together. They just like to compete together. They care about each other . They love each other. They have fun. It’s a fun dressing room to be in every day.”

Earlier this season, Tennessee struggled in third-and-long in certain situations. But the Vols held the Wildcats to 2 of 13 on third conversions. Heupel said it was a combination of pressure on Levis and matching things better in high school.

“We kept growing, and that’s what good defenses and good teams do,” Heupel said. “They keep getting better.”

The Vols (8-0) will likely need a similar defensive effort against the Bulldogs if they are to win next weekend at Sanford Stadium. It will be the first time in series history that the two rivals will meet as AP top five teams.

Tennessee wide receiver Jalin Hyatt caught two more touchdown passes on Saturday to break the single-season school record. He now has 14, including 11 in the last four games, and said the Vols will come into the game against Georgia as healthy as they have been.

“We got all of our guys back,” said Hyatt, who was joined in Tennessee’s wide receiver corps by Cedric Tillman, who caught four passes for 22 yards after missing the last four games with surgery. at the ankle. “That’s what you live for. You live for games like [Georgia].”

Hooker said the consistency that has defined Tennessee’s prep thus far won’t change just because it’s Georgia and just because the stakes will be so high.

Asked what the Vols were chasing, Hooker said, “We want to win an SEC championship. That’s our goal, to play in Atlanta at the end of the season. Every day we come in is another day in the office. , the same way the postman goes and delivers the mail.”

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