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Tennessee-Alabama: unit bell curve

The Tennessee unit analysis, on a bell curve, with the outliers on the top and bottom:

Special Teams.  Games of field position and field goals necessarily come down to special teams.  Jonathan Hefney returned six punts for 104 yards, including one for 32 yards and one for 40 yards that would have been a touchdown if Lucas Taylor had not whiffed on blocking the punter.  James Wilhoit hit from 47 yards and from 27 yards twice, but missed from 46 yards out.  Britton Colquitt had three punts for 136 yards and dropped two of them inside the 20.  His long was 51 yards.

Defensive Line. To make it a game about field position and field goals, UT's defense had to shut down Alabama's running game and keep after QB John Parker Wilson, and this unit, along with the linebacking corps, accomplished that.  Defensive ends Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds had a solid game complete with some big plays.  Each had a sack.  Mitchell had one tackle for a ten yard loss and two QB hurries, and Reynolds had two tackles for losses totaling 11 yards and a key sack in the final minutes.  The tackles were fine, getting a consistent push into 'Bama's backfield.

Linebackers.  Jerod Mayo took coach Fulmer's challenge to step up his game seriously and had seven solo tackles, 12 total tackles, two tackles for a total loss of nine yards, and the game-sealing sack of eight yards.  Marvin Mitchell also had a decent performance, making four solo tackles, one gang tackle, and a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.  The unit held Tide feature running back Ken Darby to a paltry 26 yards rushing.

Quarterback.  Erik Ainge threw three interceptions and several incompletions in the first half and generally looked confused for much of the game, but he pulled it out in the end.  This game more than anything shows the difference between this year and last.  In 2005, it would be struggle, struggle, flame-out, bench.  Against the Tide, it was struggle, struggle, struggle, win the game.  Ainge finished 28 of 46 for 302 yards.

Receivers.  Bret Smith, like Erik Ainge, had a bit of trouble getting going, but made the play to get the team within inches of the goal line that the Vols had not seen in almost two full games.  He finished with seven receptions for 95 yards.  Meachem had another solid performance while being double-teamed most of the day and finished with six receptions for 87 yards.  Jayson Swain gutted it out and caught three passes for 37 yards despite playing injured.  The tight ends caught one pass each.

Secondary.  Except for Alabama receiver D.J. Hall's Prothro-esque I'm-going-to-catch-it-on-your-back 40-yard reception, the UT secondary kept the big plays to a minimum.  Jonathans Wade and Hefney both had a hand in denying the Tide on its attempt to drive into field goal range in a last gasp effort.  

Coaching.  Alabama defensive coordinator Joe Kines gave David Cutcliffe fits for most of the game.  In the end, though, Cutcliffe had him figured out and had kept Ainge from becoming too frustrated to see the game to the end.  John Chavis shut down Alabama's run game and made the Tide one-dimensional.  

Offensive line.  The rushing game was limited -- 57 yards total -- but Ainge again went from whistle to whistle without getting sacked.  One false start, but no holding penalties.  Arron Sears rallied his unit, and the line showed up when it mattered most, clearing the way for running back Arian Foster's dive over the top into the checkerboard to win the game.

Running backs.  57 yards total rushing isn't great, but it's better than the -11 they had against Florida, and in the end it was enough to win.