Volunteers not flatlining just yet
Posted: Monday, October 20, 2008 5:41 pm
KNOXVILLE (AP) — The Tennessee Vols showed they’ve still got some life left in them.
With a 34-3 win over Mississippi State on Saturday night, the Vols (3-4, 1-3 Southeastern Conference) kept their season from completely imploding and possibly cooled some of criticism that’s been directed toward coach Phillip Fulmer this season.
“Not dead yet,” Fulmer said with a grin Saturday night.
Whether Tennessee and Fulmer can survive their upcoming game against second-ranked Alabama remains to be seen.
Mississippi State (2-5, 1-3) gave the Vols an opponent not much different than themselves — both teams are ranked last in their respective division of the SEC and had similarly struggling offenses with sound defenses.
The Crimson Tide is much better, and Tennessee has struggled against teams of similar caliber this season, prompting Vols fans to question Fulmer’s coaching abilities.
Alabama has a high-scoring, efficient offense and the running game in the SEC.
It’s also one of the best teams in the country at stopping the run.
“Obviously, there’s still much to be done, but this is something I think we can build on,” Fulmer said. “You can feel the confidence of the football team and the energy from the team. We finally started making plays.”
The biggest play came from Tennessee’s safety phenom, Eric Berry. Elix Wilson tipped a pass by Tyson Lee into the hands of Berry, who stumbled forward and broke tackles to run 72 yards for a touchdown and give Tennessee a 20-3 lead with 10:37 left in the game.
With the return, the sophomore became the SEC’s career interception return leader with 397 yards, surpassing Mississippi’s Bobby Wilson, who amassed 379 between 1946 and 1949.
Even though Tennessee never trailed in its first SEC win of the season, the interception seemed to change the Vols’ attitudes on both sides of the ball.
A minute and a half after Berry’s interception, it was Demetrice Morley’s turn to pick off Lee and run for a touchdown, a 32-yarder to put the Vols up 27-3. The defense forced the Bulldogs to go three-and-out on the subsequent drive.
“It’s big. To watch the total team play that kind of way before facing an Alabama, it is huge,” Tennessee secondary coach Larry Slade said.
Tennessee’s offense had struggled through three quarters to find the end zone, despite having more success than usual moving the ball. After the two quick interceptions, the offense looked loose and relaxed.
The Vols’ offensive line got a push that had been eluding it for several games, and Lennon Creer ran every down of a 12-play, 51-yard drive. He scored on a one-yard run to put Tennessee up 34-3 with less than three minutes left.
After Tennessee got its worst six-game start under Fulmer, the veteran coach looked at his entire program for changes that could be made.
He named permanent team captains for the first time in more than two years, and players voted seniors Robert Ayers, Ramon Foster, Lucas Taylor and Wilson; junior Montario Hardesty and one sophomore — Berry.
Defensive coordinator John Chavis opted to spend the game in the press box rather than on the sideline to help facilitate defensive play calling.
Fulmer also allowed for more fast-paced contact plays in practice to better simulate the speed of the game and help players carry over their strong practice performances to games.
Fulmer and Chavis said they liked the changes and plan to stick with them as the Vols prepare for the Crimson Tide.
“We got back to the basics,” Creer said. “Coaches were preaching being physical all week, and I think that put us in a little bit of a rhythm before the game.”