VOL. 8 | NO. 49 | Saturday, November 28, 2015
Link on UT
Can Vanderbilt Pull Off One More SEC Win Against Vols?
DAVE LINK | The Ledger
Tennessee football fans already are talking about their bowl destinations for the Christmas holidays.
Will it be the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, the Music City Bowl in Nashville or the Outback Bowl in Tampa?
Wait a minute, folks.
Tennessee (7-4, 4-3 SEC) needs a strong finish to complete its bowl resume and standing in the way is longtime rival Vanderbilt (4-7, 2-5) on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
It will be UT’s Senior Day. The Vols are riding a four-game winning streak. And Tennessee coach Butch Jones doesn’t want to lose the momentum his team worked so hard to gain.
“Anytime you win, it makes it better,” Jones said this week. “One coach told me, ‘When you win, the food is hotter, the drinks are colder and everything’s better.’
“But it’s also keeping things in perspective, continuing to grow and elevate our football team and our football program, and not letting anything be swept under the rug. I think sometimes when you win, you have a tendency to fight human complacency in terms of sweeping things under the rug, and we’ll never do that here.”
UT should know better than to sweep Vanderbilt under the rug.
Tennessee simply hasn’t dominated this series like it once did.
The Commodores went 0-8 in the SEC last season, but they were within a touchdown of the Vols the entire fourth quarter before losing 24-17 in Nashville. Tennessee gained bowl eligibility with the victory.
Vanderbilt beat the Vols 14-10 in Neyland Stadium in 2013 – Jones’ first season as the Vols’ coach – and beat UT 41-18 in Nashville in 2012 in Derek Dooley’s next-to-last game as coach. James Franklin coached the Commodores to those wins, and he’s now at Penn State.
Derek Mason hasn’t yet put Franklin’s magic back into the Commodores’ program, but his team has Jones’ attention.
“We’re going to be challenged tremendously with a great defense,” Jones says. “You talk about watching them run around and the things that they do, you put the video on and right away, it just takes two or three plays, and you know you’re playing a dominant team Saturday.”
Vanderbilt, however, wasn’t the dominant team last Saturday.
While UT was posting a methodical 19-8 win at Missouri, the Commodores lost at home to Texas A&M, 25-0.
Yet the Aggies mustered just one touchdown and needed six field goals to beat Vanderbilt, whose offense continued a season-long struggle.
“Great challenge this week with Vanderbilt,” Jones adds. “(They’re) as good of a defensive football team as we’ve faced, explosive, and can run.”
Tennessee faced a similar defense last Saturday at Missouri and passed the test.
The victory kept the Vols within reach of the program’s first eight-win season since 2007, when Phillip Fulmer’s next-to-last team finished 10-4 after a victory over Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl.
UT fans might have wanted more than eight wins this regular season, but another trip to the Outback Bowl would certainly suffice the faithful.
First, the Vols must take care of Vanderbilt.
“The way I look at it is the season’s not over with,” Jones explains.
“It kind of keeps everything in check. We have another game to play after this (Vanderbilt game), and that’s the great thing about it. It’s another time for this football team to be together as team 119 for another month, so I don’t look at it as an end.”
If the Vols lose to Vanderbilt, though, it might feel like the end.
3 matchups to watch
UT Run vs. Vandy ‘D’: This game matches Tennessee’s offensive strength against Vanderbilt’s defensive strength.
After giving up 150 rushing yards in the loss to Texas A&M, the Commodores are fifth in the SEC in rushing defense (126.1 yards per game).
Tennessee is second in the SEC in rushing offense (213.7) after rolling up 248 yards against Missouri. It was a huge performance for the Vols’ run game – and particularly the offense line – against a Missouri rush defense that ranked 14th nationally and third in the SEC (113.7 yards allowed per game).
UT sophomore Jalen Hurd ran for a career-high 151 yards on 34 carries and has 1,038 yards this season. He’s fourth in the SEC in rushing yards per game (94.4) behind LSU’s Leonard Fournette (158.2), Alabama’s Derrick Henry (138.7), and Arkansas’ Alex Collins (114.7).
“There’s a lot that goes into it,” Jones points out about UT’s run game. “Obviously, the maturation of the offensive line, it starts with them. It’s a line of scrimmage game. (Hurd) did a great job in terms of managing the workload.
“Alvin Kamara continues to give us quality yards. I’m excited about him as well. I think the receivers have done a good job of blocking, and I think part of that maturation process has been the growth and development of (tight end) Ethan Wolf.”
Webb vs. UT ‘D’: Sophomore tailback Ralph Webb is the best player on a Vanderbilt offensive that ranks 13th in the SEC in total offense (318.8 yards per game) ahead of only Missouri (290.9).
Webb is fifth in the SEC in rushing yards per game (91.2) and the Commodores are 11th in the league in rushing offense (150.4). Texas A&M held the Commodores to 125 net rushing yards. Webb gained 79 yards on 25 carries, a 3.2 yard average.
“Offensively, it all starts with Ralph Webb,” Jones says. “I think he’s one of the best running backs in our conference, very explosive, and can hit the home run.”
Tennessee’s rush defense is ninth in the SEC (149.0) after holding Missouri to 88 net yards on 29 attempts (3.0-yard average) last Saturday.
The Vols’ game motto was “Three and Heat,” referring to getting three-and-outs against the Tigers so they could get to the sideline where heaters blasted amid the frigid temperatures.
Vanderbilt hardly has a passing game. It’s last in the SEC in passing offense (168.5) and last in passing efficiency, so running the football will be critical if the Commodores are to pull off the upset.
Vandy Rush vs. Vols’ O line: The Commodores have one of the better pass rushes in the SEC – fifth with 26 sacks, or 2.36 per game – after getting three sacks for minus-17 yards against Texas A&M’s Kyle Allen.
Tennessee is seventh in the SEC in sacks allowed (21), but Missouri didn’t get a sack on Joshua Dobbs and the Vols’ QB was only hurried a couple of times.
The Vols’ offensive line faces another stiff task against Vanderbilt.
Sophomore inside linebacker Zach Cunningham leads Vanderbilt with 4.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss (third in SEC). Outside linebacker Stephen Weatherly has 3.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss, tackle Adam Butler has three sacks and seven tackles for loss, and defensive end Caleb Azubike has three sacks and six tackles for loss.
Cunningham, of Pinson Valley (Ala.) High, is seventh in the SEC in tackles with 93.
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.