KNOXVILLE (AP) — Tennessee’s offense relies heavily on big names and big plays. Vanderbilt’s defense doesn’t feature many of either.
Yet these two units have proved equally effective this season.
Tennessee ranks 14th nationally in yards per game (495.1) and 20th in scoring (37.9). Vanderbilt is bowl eligible for a second straight season t h a n k s largely to a defense that ranks 16th in points allowed per game (18.0) and 23rd in yards allowed (330.4).
Vanderbilt’s hopes of beating Tennessee for just the second time in the last 30 seasons Saturday could rest on whether its defense can cool off red-hot quarterback Tyler Bray and the high-scoring Tennessee offense.
They’re a “bunch of veteran guys who’ve been around the game a while,” Bray said of the players who make up Vanderbilt’s defense. “They just know football. They’re very smart.”
Vanderbilt’s defense already has exceeded expectations.
The Commodores (6-4, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) had to replace their team leaders from last season in tackles (Chris Marve), interceptions (Casey Hayward) and sacks (Tim Fugger). Marve was a second-team all-SEC linebacker. After picking off seven passes last season to tie for fourth place nationally, Hayward was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the second round.
Without Hayward in the secondary, Vanderbilt has forced just eight turnovers to match South Florida for the fewest takeaways of any Football Bowl Subdivision team. But the Commodores are still allowing fewer points per game than they did last season.
“I have always been impressed with how Vanderbilt plays defense,” Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “I am today, again. I know they lost some kids from last year’s team, but you haven’t noticed that very much.”
Even after losing the likes of Marve, Hayward and Fugger, the Commodores still boast plenty of experience. All their listed starters on defense are juniors or seniors. Vanderbit also has benefited from favorable field position, as the Commodores rank 13th nationally in net punting.
“We’re finding ways to be effective on defense,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “Is it as sexy as it was last year with interceptions and huge plays and things like that — sacks, strips, fumbles? No. But we’re playing t our strengths, we’re playing to our personnel and we’re finding ways to win.”
Tennessee (4-6, 0-6) hasn’t found many ways to win this season, but the offense isn’t to blame. The Vols have scored at least 31 points in eight of their 10 games.
The Vols’ offense has been especially potent recently, even as Tennessee has lost five of its last six games.
Bray has thrown for 1,302 yards and 13 touchdowns with only one interception over his last three games. Zach Rogers caught three touchdown passes in a 38-35 loss to South Carolina on Oct. 27. Justin Hunter recorded three touchdown catches in a 55-48 victory over Troy the following week. Tight end Mychal Rivera collected 10 receptions for 129 yards and a touchdown last week in a 51-48 overtime loss to Missouri. Cordarrelle Patterson leads the SEC with 1,453 all-purpose yards. Bray, Hunter and Patterson all are regarded as probable early-round draft picks.
“Tennessee has as good of an offense as I’ve seen,” Franklin said.
The Vols’ offensive line has allowed only five sacks all season, which could neutralize one of the Vanderbilt defense’s greatest strengths. Vanderbilt leads the SEC and is tied for fourth nationally with 7.9 tackles for loss per game. Junior linebacker Chase Garnham has collected a team-high six sacks and is one of five Commodores with at least eight tackles for loss. By contrast, Tennessee doesn’t have anyone with more than five tackles for loss.
“I wouldn’t say they’re the most talented team, but right now they’re playing really good sound football, especially on defense,” Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio Richardson said. “They’re ranked 23rd overall in (total) defense. You can’t overlook them. We’ve just got to go in there and play our game.”
Tennessee likely will be able to move the ball against Vanderbilt. The question is whether the Vols will take full advantage of all their scoring opportunities. Vanderbilt has allowed opponents to reach the end zone on just 12 of 32 red-zone possessions this season, the best percentage for any SEC defense.
“If we have to give up 400 yards this week of passing but not give up the touchdowns and hold them to field goals and find a way to get a few turnovers and win the game that way, (that’s) awesome. … Whatever we’ve got to do to win the game, I’m perfectly comfortable with,” Franklin said. “We just want to be 1-0 at the end of the week.”