There were some concerns about the Tennessee pass rush coming out of the Ball State win, although we were mainly nitpicking. Those concerns are no more following Tennessee’s win against Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon.
The Tennessee defense ended up carrying the team in the second half, even after a shaky start. Tim Banks was dialing up all kinds of pressure, but couldn’t quite get home early on. What he was able to do was hit Kedon Slovis quite a few times, eventually forcing him out of the game. The USC transfer was rocked time and time again, forcing Nick Patti into action. Tennessee did the same to him.
Byron Young and Tyler Baron were as advertised, completely changing the game. Tim Banks was aggressive, and though he got burned a couple of times early on, he stayed aggressive. It paid off in a big way.
“Defensive effort, just in general, absolutely relentless,” Josh Heupel said after the game. “I said it earlier, the second, third and fourth quarter, that’s as good of a performance as I’ve been around in a long time. They got put in a lot of bad positions, from turnovers, short fields, special teams. They reset, they played. They were physical, the front four, and their pressures were relentless on the quarterback all night long.”
After a leaky first quarter, the pressures and quarterback hits started to add up. You got the sense that Tennessee was playing the long game of sorts, slowing wearing down the Panthers with body blow after body blow. That turned out to be the case, and by the end, Tennessee certainly had the upper hand defensively.
“If we hadn’t sacked them, we were hitting them early in the ballgame,” Heupel said. “Those were completions a couple times, on those first drives. I heard coach Banks, Coach G, I said it, just keep coming, you’re going to hit home here eventually. I thought the overall effort from them was special.”
Byron Young tallied three quarterback hurries and a sack. Aaron Beasley added three more pressures, while Tyler Baron got home for a sack and added two tackles for loss. Roman Harrison and Jeremy Banks also had two pressures.
On a day where the Tennessee offense really never found any rhythm, it was Tim Banks’ defense carrying the Volunteers to a victory. How many of you saw that coming? That’s a really good sign for this group going forward, with SEC play looming.
Obviously there’s plenty to clean up here, but I’d argue Tennessee played one of their worst games of the Heupel era on Saturday — and still found a way to beat a top 20 team on the road.
Cleaning up the mistakes is a must, but that defensive performance is something to be excited about going forward.