Who were those imposters in black uniforms playing in the defensive backfield last Saturday night?
All season long, cries from the Big Orange fan base have focused on the matador-like play of the Tennessee secondary. The Vols corners and safeties have been as leaky as a colander, yet Tennessee remained undefeated.
If you’ll recall, Pitt quarterbacks Kedon Slovis and Nick Paddy torched the Vols, crafting a two-score lead, until the defense made the big sack in overtime. Then, Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson roasted the Vols with an effort worthy of an All-American…until Kamal Haddon ended Florida’s victory pursuit with his pick in the waning seconds.
Even against Ball State, Akron and UTM, Tennessee’s pass defense looked like a vulnerability.
Until Saturday night. The No. 3 Vols hammered 19th-ranked Kentucky and made it look easy, Tennessee’s secondary came up with big play after big play, including three interceptions. UK quarterback Will Levis was touted as a No. 1 draft pick earlier in the year.
Saturday night, I’m not sure Levis would have been picked for a powder puff game. Levis was 16-27 for a paltry 98 yards. Credit Tennessee’s rejuvenated defense for creating that mayhem.
Kentucky star running back Chris Rodriguez carried 15 times for 64 yards. Also, Kentucky scored just six points despite possessing the ball for 35:11. Tennessee’s defense did a number on UK.
Meanwhile, Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker was his efficient self once again. He was 19-25 for 245 and three touchdowns. Jalin Hyatt continued to get wide open. He had five catches for 138 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The Vols had 245 through the air and 177 on the ground for 422 total yards.
This team is like that storm in the Gulf. It gets your attention as a tropical wave, but continues to strengthen until it becomes a Category 5 behemoth.
That’s what we have in this Tennessee team. It turned in its most complete game in perhaps a decade or more and then players and coaches say this team hasn’t played its best ball yet.
If that’s true, crank up the storm warnings in Athens next week.
Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox radio show, which airs 4-6 p.m CT Monday-Thursday on WRJB 95.9 FM, Camden, Tenn.