Tennessee defense beating up on weak offenses late in season
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) A weak late-season schedule has given Tennessee's defense an opportunity to flex its muscles.
Tennessee has allowed a total of eight points over its last two games and is on pace to end the season with its best scoring defense of the post-Phillip Fulmer era. The Volunteers (7-4, 4-3 SEC) are chasing their first five-game winning streak since 2007 on Saturday when they host Vanderbilt, the lowest-scoring Football Bowl Subdivision program.
''It gives us a good idea of where we're at and what we're doing right,'' safety Brian Randolph said. ''We have confidence in ourselves and our game plan. We're all just playing together.''
Tennessee followed a 24-0 victory over North Texas with a 19-8 triumph over Missouri last week, the first time since 2006 that the Vols have held two straight opponents to single digits. Only a Missouri touchdown in the final 10 minutes of Saturday's game prevented Tennessee from producing back-to-back shutouts for the first time since 2002.
''We'll keep preparing like we've been preparing and hopefully we can get a shutout next week,'' linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said after the Missouri game.
That's certainly possible against Vanderbilt, which averages just 14 points per game and has been shut out in two of its last four contests. That continues the pattern of Tennessee's late-season schedule.
Each of Tennessee's last four opponents rank 96th or below among all FBS teams in scoring - Kentucky (96th), South Carolina (110th), North Texas (123rd) and Missouri (125th). The only FBS teams averaging fewer points per game than Missouri are Kent State and Vanderbilt.
Tennessee beat Missouri by stifling freshman quarterback Drew Lock, who went 13 of 30 for 135 yards with an interception. Tennessee could face a second straight freshman quarterback Saturday in Vanderbilt's Kyle Shurmur, who has started four of the Commodores' last five games.
After giving up 25.7 points per game through the first half of the season, the Vols have allowed just 14.4 points per game over their last five contests. They've allowed 20.5 points per game overall, their lowest average since the 2008 team gave up 16.8 points per game.
''We're able to generate more second-and-long, third-and-long situations,'' Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. ''Anytime you can create third-and-long situations, it becomes advantageous for you. I think staying ahead of the sticks, improving our tackling, swarming to the football, all those things, the small details (have improved). It's always the little things that nobody sees that add up to the big things everyone sees.''
The Vols certainly have come a long way since the start of the season. Tennessee was 3-4 earlier this year because it its inability to protect leads. They fell to Oklahoma and Arkansas after leading 17-0 in both games. They were up 27-14 in the fourth quarter of a 28-27 loss at Florida and also led in the final quarter of a 19-14 loss at Alabama.
Now they're shutting opponents down.
''We had that analogy where you're digging for gold,'' Randolph said. ''You may hit the shovel 100 times and you need to hit it 101 times and you've got the gold. We've been looking at that. You don't quit. You never know. You could be right there.''
NOTE: Jones said defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt would be honored with the rest of the seniors before the Vols' final home game Saturday. The Vols haven't ruled out the possibility of seeking a sixth year of eligibility for Maggitt if he doesn't return this season. Maggitt redshirted in 2013 and hasn't played since injuring his hip in mid-September.
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