Commentary

Tennessee's defense contains McFadden, keys win for Vols

Originally Published: November 10, 2007
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- It was supposed to be a coronation of sorts, a jaunt to the doorstep of college football's most prized individual award.

But on this crisp November afternoon, a Tennessee defense that had been trampled on, beaten on and ridiculed for most of the season was in no mood to serve as Darren McFadden's personal red carpet to the Downtown Athletic Club.

"Darren McFadden is a great back, but he wasn't going to win the Heisman Trophy in Neyland Stadium," Tennessee middle linebacker Jerod Mayo said defiantly.

No, and the Vols aren't about to go quietly in the Eastern Division race. Their 34-13 bludgeoning of Arkansas on Saturday sets up the kind of season-ending scenario any Tennessee fan would have taken back in August.

All the Vols (7-3, 4-2) have to do now to get to Atlanta -- site of the SEC championship game on Dec. 1 -- is beat Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Tennessee has beaten those two teams 43 of the past 44 times it has played them.

Then again, anyone who thinks that's a given obviously hasn't been paying attention to the SEC this season. How else do you explain the unprecedented balance? How else do you explain Tennessee being humiliated by Florida one week and humbling Georgia two weeks later?

And how else do you explain Tennessee's defense rising up from the ashes and delivering a performance that would make Al Wilson, Shaun Ellis, Deon Grant and the boys proud?

After all, this was the same defense that entered the game ranked 11th in the SEC in scoring defense and total defense, the same defense that looked helpless in a 39-point loss to Florida and a 24-point loss to Alabama.

[+] EnlargeJohn Chavis
Marvin Gentry-US PresswireJohn Chavis has witnessed dramatic improvement in Tennessee's defense.

But it was hardly the same defense that showed up today, holding McFadden and the Razorbacks' vaunted running game to 127 yards -- their second lowest output of the season. The Vols also intercepted three passes, and one of those was returned 34 yards for a touchdown by Mayo.

"We're a young defensive team," said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, proving yet again that he's money when his back's against the wall. "There are spots we're not very good at in some ways, but have gotten better. That's the essence of coaching. You take whatever you've got. You work like heck to get better at it, and we have gotten better during the course of the season.

"Even though we're young in spots and not as talented as we have been in some others, there's great heart and great desire. You can't measure that."

You also can't measure how much grief Tennessee associate head coach and defensive coordinator John Chavis has absorbed this season. Defense has been the backbone of this program under Fulmer, and quite honestly, the reason the Vols have a 1998 national championship trophy on display in the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center.

But never under Chavis, known to his players simply as "Chief," have the Vols been more vulnerable on defense than this season. And never has their pride been more wounded.

"We can play at this level," defensive tackle Demonte' Bolden fumed. "We're in the SEC. We came here. We proved to a lot of people that we can get the job done. All we've got to do is keep doing it."

In particular, the Vols grew weary last week of hearing about McFadden. He'd just tied an SEC record with 321 rushing yards against South Carolina, and Arkansas rolled up an astonishing 542 as a team.

"How many yards did he rush for [against the Vols]?" Bolden, still clearly agitated, asked reporters.

Told it was 117 yards, Bolden huffed, "It wasn't up the middle. Anything else?"

For one thing, the Vols played keep-away from the Razorbacks. When Tennessee went up 20-3 with 10 seconds to play in the first half, Arkansas had run just 18 offensive plays.

[+] EnlargeJerod Mayo
AP Photo/Wade PayneJerod Mayo returned an interception for a 34-yard score.

McFadden's sidekick, Felix Jones, suffered a deep thigh bruise on the opening kickoff, leaving the bulk of the work to McFadden. The "WildHog" package with McFadden at quarterback, which was so successful last week against South Carolina and carved the Vols to pieces a year ago, didn't cause a dent in the Vols' armor.

"It was just something where they kept us off balance," McFadden said. "We never got it going from the first quarter. It was very frustrating. It seemed like their game plan was to try and keep us off the field. They were running one or two safeties at us before we snapped the ball and did a great job with it."

If Chavis was feeling any pressure last week in practice, his players said he never showed it. Linebacker Rico McCoy said Chavis was as calm and quietly confident as he's seen him the week of a game.

"He knew what he wanted to do and said, 'Guys, listen, do what I say, and we'll win,' " McCoy said. "Everybody rallied around that. Chief was the leader. He was the leader this week. He stayed calm and wasn't real uptight, and it paid off."

It was also one of the simplest defensive game plans the Vols have employed all season, according to Chavis. Particularly once Jones left the game, the Vols loaded up to stop McFadden.

If Arkansas quarterbacks Casey Dick and Nathan Emert were going to beat them throwing the ball, so be it. But it wasn't going to be McFadden.

"We took some chances," Chavis said. "It makes sense when you play a team that's going to run it the way they run it. They ran it for 550 yards [against South Carolina]. If we had to put all 11 of them in the box, I guarantee you we were going to find a way to keep them from running it for 550 yards."

But Chavis, in vintage fashion, said all the credit goes to his players.

"I see them growing and am excited about what I see," said Chavis, who is in his 13th season as the Vols' defensive coordinator. "But I want you to understand. Our players are the ones who got it done, and whoa, it was fun watching them play today."

The only thing more fun than the action on the field Saturday will be how the Vols spend their evening. Sure, they might check a few scores or tune in later Saturday night to the Florida-South Carolina game.

But it will be purely for entertainment. They don't need any help.

"We're in control. It's all up to us," McCoy said. "It's what we do. It's in our hands, and that's a great feeling.

"You practice hard and play hard, and we can go wherever we want to go."

Not bad for a team [and a defense] that was left for dead three weeks ago.

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at espnclow@aol.com.

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