Tennessee coach Josh Heupel is known for his innovative offense that has produced the most points and yards per game in the country.
However, in the No. 3 Vols’ (8-0, 4-0 SEC) 44-6 destruction over No. 19 Kentucky (5-3, 2-3 SEC), it was the defense that stole the show.
“Defensively, I thought we did an unbelievable job controlling and dominating the line of scrimmage,” said Heupel. “We did a great job of matching out guys on the backend. We played real ball tonight, and it was suffocating defense. It was fun to watch those guys.”
A key to Tennessee’s defensive success was creating turnovers. Wildcat quarterback Will Levis came into the game as a projected top-draft pick but left with three interceptions.
Playing a large hand in two of the turnovers was Doneiko Slaughter. Early in the second quarter, Kentucky trailed by 14 with the ball in the red zone. However, Levis attempted a short pass that was blown up with a monster hit by Slaughter. The ball popped into the air and was intercepted by Juwan Mitchell who returned it across the 50-yard line.
Then, in the third quarter, Slaughter added more salt to the Wildcats’ wounds by making an acrobatic grab to give the Vols the ball back with a 24-point lead.
Sandwiched between Slaughter’s pair of impressive plays was another interception by Brandon Turnage earlier in the third quarter.
Wesley Walker also put together one of his best games as a Vol by recording three tackles for loss. Trevon Flowers, Jaylen McCollough and Tamarion McDonald got their hands on passes for breakups, as well.
Besides this stellar play from a previously struggling secondary, Tennessee’s pass rush was instrumental in halting Kentucky’s attack.
The defensive front got to Levis for four sacks and slung down ball carriers for eight tackles for loss. They also hurried Levis four times.
Byron Young stood out among the group of impactful players with 1.5 sacks and four tackles.
“We knew off-rip that we would have to stop the run to even get that chance for (Levis) to pass,” said Young. “So, our game plan was to shut down the run to force him to pass, and then next to shut that down. That is what we did, and we came out with a win.”
This special play from the entire defensive unit is exemplified by holding Kentucky to an abysmal 2-for-13 third down conversion rate. This forced the Wildcats to punt six times on top of their turnover struggles.
The six points allowed against the Wildcats is tied for the least amount Tennessee has surrendered this season. The lone score of the game came on Kentucky’s second drive through a Chris Rodriguez touchdown rush. The following extra point was blocked cementing the score at six.
This caliber of special team play was on display all night alongside the stifling defense. Punter Paxton Brooks landed two of his three punt attempts inside the Kentucky three-yard line with the other going for over 50 yards.
On punt return, Dee Williams took his pair of returns back for an average of 22 yards setting up the Vols in great field position.
“Special teams did a great job,” said Heupel. “They created plays in the early part of the season through the return game. Our guys did a great job. Paxton Brooks was awesome all night long and our cover units too.”
Next up for Tennessee is a huge matchup with No. 1 Georgia in Athens. ESPN’s College GameDay will be in attendance as the Vols moved up to a tie for No. 2 in the AP Poll creating a rare one vs. two affair. The game will air on CBS and kick-off is at 3:30 EST.
Ryan Sylvia is the Sports Editor at TNJN. He is a senior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville majoring in journalism and electronic media. Although he spent most of his life being raised outside of Philadelphia, he was born in Knoxville, and he is happy to be back home. Ryan has had a love for sports from an early age, and he found his love for writing in high school while taking journalism classes. He hopes to find a job involving both his passions as a sports journalist after graduation. To reach Ryan, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org