October 7, 2008

Vols in rush to slow UGA ground game

Forgive Tennessee defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell for sounding a tad like former voice of the Georgia Bulldogs Larry Munson Tuesday in assessing the Vols defensive challenge Saturday at 10th-ranked Georgia.

"I think South Carolina played very well on defense, and we've looked at that real close," Caldwell said of the Bulldogs' narrow, 14-7 win last month in Columbia. "We've got to do the same thing. We've got to hunker down in there like we did last year and we've got to not let them knock us off the ball and tackle well."

Indeed, last year Tennessee forced Georgia, ranked 12th at the time, to punt on its opening possession and quickly constructed a 28-0 lead. The Bulldogs didn't pick up their second first down until after the Vols' fourth touchdown, and they didn't dent the scoreboard until less than 10 minutes remained in the third quarter.

Tennessee limited Georgia to just 69 rushing yards, and the teams who bottled up the Bulldogs' ground game earlier this season -- Alabama and South Carolina -- allowed just a combined 156 yards on 51 attempts.

"We watched the film, and those guys were just rallying to the ball," junior defensive end Wes Brown said of that USC game. "We watched the South Carolina film (Monday), and South Carolina was just flying to the ball, playing hard and gang tackling. So that's what it's going to take for us, know our assignments, play every down and get to the ball."

There are two factors that suggest Tennessee could again find success in that regard: the Vols' defensive line, particularly their ends, have displayed marked Improvement throughout the season; while the Vols' defensive front has maintained the same starting lineup in four of five games, the Bulldogs' offensive line has been shuffled around and includes four sophomore and freshman starters. Center Ben Jones is a true freshman who will make his third career start on Saturday.

"I like the development of our young defensive ends, Ben Martin, Chris Walker, and the progress they are making. Gerald Williams is consistently working to get better," UT head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "Our secondary continues to give us some flexibility to do a lot of different things. I'm excited for where we are right now."

Tennessee's production from its ends has elevated dramatically in its last two games; the group has combined for 22 tackles, including three sacks, a tackle for loss, four quarterback hurries and a pass break-up. Bigger still, the work of that group further emboldens the Vols' talented secondary.

"It's huge. We work together. It is a team," secondary coach Larry Slade said. "We realize when we get an interception and if you look at Eric Berry's interception Saturday there was heat on the quarterback and he threw it before he needed to. It's a tremendous help when you are getting there."

Though Georgia's offensive line is young, Brown notes, it also is very talented and blocks for arguably the best running back in the nation, Knowshon Moreno and one of the top quarterbacks in Matthew Stafford. Moreno averages 6.3 yards on 78 carries, and the redshirt sophomore's 10 rushing touchdowns are just one fewer than the Vols' season touchdown total.

"They're tough. Their offensive line is real tough, and their running back is top-notch in the SEC. It's going to be a great challenge for us to come out and stop Moreno, he's a great running back," said Brown, whose production hasn't declined despite his playing with a torn meniscus in his right knee. "He runs tough and hard. It's going to take 11 guys running to the ball and getting him down because there are rare occasions where one guy brings him down. So it's going to take a total team effort."

And just as Tennessee wants to neutralize Georgia's ground game, which averages 161.4 yards rushing per game and 425 yards of total offense per contest, the Bulldogs know the early key is identifying their running game.

"You always want to establish a run game," Georgia sophomore lineman Chris Davis said. "It's just like on defense where your main goal is to stop the run game. We just got to get out here and practice and do our assignments to get ready for Tennessee."

But Georgia coach Mark Richt doesn't expect that to be an easy option against a Tennessee defense upon which he heaped considerable praise earlier this week.

"(Tennessee's defensive) front four are all juniors and seniors. They've all played an awful lot," Richt said. "They're as good-looking bunch of defensive linemen as you'll see. That's never changed since we've been playing Tennessee. Probably when Coach (Vince) Dooley was playing against Tennessee, I'm sure they had the same type of good looking defensive players on their team that could really run. … (Ellix Wilson) is a little bit like Rennie (Curran), 5-foot-10, 225 pounds, a guy who is a high-energy guy, I think he's leading the team in tackles, but their linebackers are very much like we are used to seeing. Other than him, he's a little bit shorter than some have been in the past. Rennie Curran is probably shorter than he is, and I wouldn't trade Rennie for anything and I'm sure they wouldn't trade Wilson either.

"In the secondary, I don't think you will find two more talented safeties (Eric Berry and Demetrice Morley) in the country. I think history will prove that they will be two of the highest-drafted safeties when their day comes of anybody in the nation. They are big, they are fast, they are physical, they are playmakers and they are playing with tremendous confidence."

And, in the words of both Caldwell and Munson, they're playing to "hunker down" against the Bulldogs.

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