Very quietly, the Tennessee defense was really good on Saturday against Missouri. Their effort won’t make headlines, especially when the offense puts up 62 points in SEC play, but it shouldn’t go unnoticed.
The scoreboard said they gave up 24 points, but seven of those came off of a kick return touchdown. In total, they gave up just under 400 yards of offense and 17 true points. That’s an effort that will win you plenty of football games with Josh Heupel’s offense on the other side of the ball.
“I thought defensively we played really well,” Heupel said after the win. “After their initial touchdown I thought we played with suffocating energy and strain to the football. It wasn’t just one guy making the tackle, there were a bunch of guys there. White shirts were breaking from the core on pass plays.”
Tennessee was swarming. They won the line of scrimmage. They tackled really well. They didn’t shoot themselves in the foot with dumb penalties. It was an outstanding all around effort for the Volunteers, who were playing without starting linebacker Juwan Mitchell and starting safety Trevon Flowers.
Jeremy Banks played a really nice game as the primary linebacker, winning on delayed blitzes and tallying a sack and two tackles for loss. He also snagged an interception and nearly took it back for six. Jaylen McCollough also grabbed an interception and added four tackles. Aaron Beasley had some nice moments, while Tamarion McDonald and Christian Charles each had flashes of brilliance. Touted pass rusher Byron Young found some footing on Saturday too, credited with two pressures on the day.
The secondary had a bit of a shaky start, but quickly settled in after the first drive.
“Thought we played tight coverage,” Heupel continued. “I thought we lost some guys in the middle of the field on scrambles and maybe a boot over. But for the most part a lot of really good things. Their outside-zone run game had been a huge part of what they had done. I thought we handled that pretty well for most of the day.”
Tennessee held Tyler Badie to 41 yards on 21 carries. Connor Bazelak threw for 322 yards, but failed to throw a touchdown pass and turned the ball over twice.
Coming into the season, Tennessee was expected to have an emerging offense and a struggling defense. Through five games, the defense has held their own. They’re far from a perfect unit, lacking a consistent pass rush and overall depth, but they’ve proven to be a group that can keep you in ballgames.
Tim Banks deserves a lot of credit, coming into a situation that was less than ideal. Defensive line coach Rodney Garner has totally transformed that room. Frankly, not many saw this effort coming on this side of the ball. Just having a defense that ranks in the top half of the FBS is a major win for this coaching staff at this point in the season.
After South Carolina, the level of difficulty will be cranked up with Ole Miss, Alabama and Georgia looming. However, it does seem like a decent foundation has been put down here.