KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Nobody has stopped Tennessee‘s record-setting offense all season, and now, heading into a potential top-three showdown with Georgia, the Vols’ defense is showing all the signs of peaking at just the right time.
The No. 3 Vols smothered No. 19 Kentucky in a 44-6 victory on Saturday night at Neyland Stadium, a game that saw Tennessee hold Kentucky scoreless for the final three quarters of the game. The Vols hounded projected first-round draft pick Will Levis into three interceptions and sacked him four times.
Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, who is making a strong case for the Heisman Trophy and threw three more touchdown passes against the Wildcats, said he is not the least bit surprised to see the defense playing at an elevated level.
“I see the defensive guys putting in extra work, whether it’s getting on the Jugs [gun], which you can see these guys making great plays on the ball and coming out and playing with their hair on fire,” Hooker said. “I’m extremely proud of them, and to compete against them every day, it’s a heated battle on that practice field.”
One of the best signs for the Vols entering the Georgia game is that they are beginning to sort out things in their secondary, which took some lumps earlier in the season. Junior Doneiko Slaughter started at cornerback against Kentucky after lining up at safety earlier this season and made two huge plays.
In other words, he might not be going back to safety anytime soon. The 6-foot, 190-pound Slaughter delivered a crushing hit on Kentucky receiver Dane Key in the second quarter, forcing a deflection that linebacker Juwan Mitchell intercepted and returned 48 yards. Then in the third quarter, Slaughter produced Tennessee’s third interception of the game when he had excellent coverage and made a leaping play on the sideline.
“I just like hitting people, obviously,” Slaughter said. “That’s why I play defense, but my guys are there helping make that play, too, hustling to the ball. That’s what’s going to happen.”
The Vols were without three of their top cornerbacks Saturday, including Warren Burrell, who is out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Kamal Hadden and Christian Charles were also out with injuries.
Redshirt junior Brandon Turnage was pressed into more action and responded with an interception. Asked if he liked to hit as much as Slaughter, Turnage joked, “Yeah, I like to hit, probably not as much as Doneiko. He’s a Slaughter.”
Tennessee also got back senior safety Jaylen McCollough, who returned to the lineup Saturday after missing the past two games. McCollough was charged with felony aggravated assault on Oct. 9 after a man mistakenly entered his apartment, and McCollough injured his right hand after punching the man.
A major difference with this Tennessee defense is that the Vols are playing more people on that side of the ball. Coach Josh Heupel said during the offseason that creating more depth on defense would be critical. The Vols wore down at times a year ago on defense.
“One of the strengths for us defensively is the ability to rotate and play a lot of guys. It’s next man up,” Heupel said. “That allows you to go out and play as hard as you possibly can. It allows you to get into the second half and be fresh and go out and compete hard on every play.”
The Vols are also able to play more complementary football than they have in the past and don’t have to lean quite as heavily on the offense to score 40-plus points every game.
“That’s what good teams do. You start playing off each other, and when one’s struggling, the other one picks them up,” Heupel said. “There have been times throughout the course of the year where that’s happened, whether it’s the offense holding it together, the defense holding it together. They just like competing together. They care about each other. They love each other. They have fun. It’s a fun locker room to be in every day.”
Earlier this season, Tennessee struggled on third-and-long in certain situations. But the Vols held the Wildcats to 2-of-13 on third-down conversions. Heupel said it was a combination of pressuring Levis and matching things up better in the secondary.
“We’ve continued to grow, and that’s what good defenses and good teams do,” Heupel said. “They continue to get better.”
The Vols (8-0) will likely need a similar defensive effort against the Bulldogs if they’re going to win next weekend at Sanford Stadium. It will be the first time in the history of the series that the two rivals will meet as AP top-five teams.
Tennessee receiver Jalin Hyatt caught two more touchdown passes Saturday to break the single-season school record. He now has 14, including 11 in the past four games, and said the Vols will go into the Georgia game as healthy as they’ve been.
“We’ve got all our guys back,” said Hyatt, who was rejoined in the Tennessee wide receiver corps by Cedric Tillman, who caught four passes for 22 yards after missing the past four games due to ankle surgery. “This is what you live for. You live for games like [Georgia].”
Hooker said the consistency that has defined Tennessee’s preparation to this point won’t change just because it’s Georgia and just because the stakes will be so high.
Asked what the Vols were chasing, Hooker said, “We want to win an SEC championship. That’s our goal, to be playing in Atlanta at the end of the season. Every day we come in, it’s another day at the office, the same way the mailman goes and delivers the mail.”