Two teams and several lifetimes ago, one of our favorite villains said something like, “We’ll make the free throws we need to make.” In a new era that feels increasingly like watching a basketball game, Josh Heupel got his first win over a ranked team in the Bluegrass. The offense was spectacular in a way that we’re just wholly unaccustomed to. The defense?
They made the stop(s) they needed to make.
I’m not sure how often we’ll see a game like this down the road. It felt like a bit of what we signed up for in bringing Heupel’s…well, Heuper Drive offense (shout out Joel) to Knoxville. It’s also tantalizing to watch a game like this and think, “Man, if we get some depth on defense…”.
Tennessee’s defense came into tonight 117th nationally in third down conversion percentage allowed, then gave up 12-of-17 to Kentucky. But three of Kentucky’s last five drives ended with Alontae Taylor’s pick six, and a pair of fourth down stops: a sack on 4th-and-7 with an all-out blitz, and enough pressure to force an uncatchable ball to the sideline on 4th-and-10. That made four straight incomplete passes for Will Levis, which sounds a lot better than the 4th-and-24 conversion that preceded it.
That’s one thing about this defense: late in the game, they get off the field when we need it. Against Pittsburgh, they forced consecutive punts when the Vols cut it to 41-34. The last three drives for Ole Miss ended with an interception, punt, and three-and-out. And it feels much better in victory tonight.
It feels a bit like relief, in part because the offense was so ridiculously good.
Tennessee had 9.81 yards per play, which includes three kneel downs by Hendon Hooker (otherwise known as 6.3% of our total snaps). That number was 8.76 at Missouri, in what felt like the greatest thing we’d seen in a long time. When the Vols set records against Troy in 2012, they did it with 9.45 yards per play.
Via SportSource Analytics, tonight is the second-best yards per play performance for the Vol offense of the post-Fulmer era. The only one better also came against Kentucky: 599 yards in 59 plays for Josh Dobbs and company in 2016. That’s 10.15 per play. Tonight, before the three kneel downs, the Vols had 10.66.
At Missouri, Hendon Hooker was 15-of-19 for 225 yards and three touchdowns, 11.8 yards per attempt. Tonight: 15-of-20 for 316 yards and four touchdowns, 15.8 yards per attempt. Against FBS foes, the best performance in yards per attempt for Tennessee quarterbacks with 20+ attempts in the post-Fulmer era? Before tonight, it was Jonathan Crompton against Memphis in 2009 (21-of-27 for 331 yards, 12.3 ypa). Against an SEC foe, it was Crompton against Georgia (20-of-27 for 310 yards, 11.5 ypa). Hooker, Heupel, and Tennessee’s receivers shattered those numbers tonight, and did it against a Kentucky defense that came in 32nd nationally in yards per attempt allowed.
Look, at some point we’ll stop making this comparison because it’s irrelevant. But at least for tonight: last year, Tennessee had three plays of 40+ yards. That’s three of 660 snaps, less than one half of one percent.
Tennessee had 10 plays of 40+ yards coming into tonight. Then they had three in 47 snaps in this game, plus two other gains of 37 yards.
That again creates imbalance in snaps and time of possession. It means your defense can get off the field more than they get credit for. It also means the times you don’t score on offense feel much worse, because they too are a much bigger percentage of the whole. The Vols got 45 points, and also had a fumbled exchange inside the Kentucky 30, couldn’t convert on 4th-and-8 inside the Kentucky 40, and of course walked away with nothing from 2nd-and-goal at the 4 with a chance to put the game away.
That sequence and the ensuing 4th-and-24 conversion from Kentucky gave us all a case of the oh-nos. And yet…the defense made the stops they needed to make.
The rules all change next week, when the Vols will shoot their shot against the number one team in the nation. But on the other side of that are South Alabama and Vanderbilt, which could represent wins six and seven for this team, giving them a chance to go bowling to get eight. 8-5 would be the best record for any first year coach at Tennessee since Phillip Fulmer. And more than that, Heupel got his ranked win, just the 10th in Knoxville since Fulmer left in 2008. It’s just the sixth Top 20 in that span.
At the extremes of what this offense and defense can and can’t do, the Vols got the win. The defense made the stop it needed to make. And Tennessee’s forward progress rolls on in an incredibly enjoyable year one.