KNOXVILLE – The Tennessee-Vanderbilt series has been one-sided in recent times with the Vols winning 28 of the last 29 meetings dating to 1983, but last season's overtime thriller re-kindled a rivalry that was the reason General Neyland was hired to lead the Vols in 1925.
When Neyland was promoted to head coach, his primary charge from then-Tennessee Dean Nathan Dougherty was to “even the score with Vanderbilt."
The Vols have great respect for the 2012 edition of the Commodores, who are at 6-4 and are bowl-eligible for the second year in a row for the first time in school history. The Commodores are seeking their first five-game win streak since the 2008 season.
"I think it's going to be the same thing as last year," said Justin Hunter about the competitiveness expected on Saturday. "They have a good record this year, so they're really hyped and ready to play us. They know they had a close game against us last year and they could have won. So they're going to come in fired up and we're going to be the same way."
The excitement of last year's 27-21 overtime win on Eric Gordon's interception return for a touchdown is one of the contributing reasons the Vols have one of their most potent weapons in 2012.
"I know it's going to be a good game, a big game," said junior receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who attended last year's game at Neyland Stadium. "Last year, I came on my visit and saw all the hype and everything when they went into overtime, so I know it's going to be a pretty good experience."
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For Zach Rogers, a Nashville native, the game at Vanderbilt always has special meaning.
"It means a lot," Rogers. "I've got a lot of family and friends coming to this one. I definitely want to do my best to make them proud of me, but at the same time, I'm still fighting for this team and we're fighting for each other to get these last two wins.
On the field, Tennessee has taken note of the Commodores' strengths led by quarterback Jordan Rodgers, who has played well during VU's four-game winning streak.
"He does just about everything well," Daniel Hood said about Rodgers. "[UT's defense] will try to get a read on him at the line with the hand motions he does and you can't really get any. And then on every play, he turns around and he looks the same - he'll do a simple handoff and make it look like a bootleg. He'll freeze that backside in from running it down. We'll look at that and we see his discipline as well. Then you look at some of the throws he's made this year - they're really good and of course, he's a fast guy."
On defense, Vanderbilt is allowing just 18.0 points per game (16th in the NCAA) and also ranks in the top 25 in the NCAA in total defense (23rd), pass defense (14th) and tackles for loss (fourth).
"They're like a couple of teams we've seen," said Hunter. "They play a lot of Cover 3, a lot of zone with just one high basically."
While their scheme certainly helps, much of the Commodore’s success comes from the confidence they play with.
"They're still a very good defense,” Rogers said. “They're still competing in the SEC every week. They believe in what they do and they execute it very well."
EYES ON A BOWL PRIZE
An experienced junior with four years under his belt, defensive lineman, Daniel Hood isn't taking anything this season for granted when it comes to the game.
Hood takes all aspects of the game, both on and off the field, personally and knows what needs to be done for his team to end its season with a bowl.
"I think [going to a bowl] can be taken for granted," Hood said. "I have the same motivation [as last year] this year, if not more.
"That's what is great about the bowl system. It's awesome whether you're going to the Music City Bowl or the Liberty Bowl. I can speak from experience. I felt like we were in the National Championship game when we went to the Music City Bowl. It was an awesome experience, and all that time we get to practice too, it helps a lot."
Before these players can concentrate on the extra month with their teammates and extra practices without class to attend to, a win against Vanderbilt and Kentucky are in order. With two more wins comes a need for improvement from this Tennessee team, Hood says.
"I thought there was [improvement last week], especially on the defensive line," Hood said. "I can't speak for the secondary, but I know for us, simplifying it allowed us to play a lot faster and to know what our keys were. Every play they ran we had actually seen in practice, not just seeing it once, but actually being able to work on it multiple times."
Besides focusing on the last two games of the season, Hood says the extra media attention on his head coach can be distracting if you aren't careful.
"Coach Dooley preaches all the time that you have to learn to put it away," the Knoxville native said. "It's a great lesson for us, because we're learning how to do things that a lot of people don't get to - being able to put away the stress and work through the adversity."
With the attention comes extra pressure on the players, but under the lessons of Coach Dooley, his team is prepared to handle whatever is thrown at them.
"As a player, I don't try to look at it as playing for Coach Dooley's job," Hood said. "To me, I just look at it as getting better every day. I can't talk to you about X's and O's, the only thing I know is defensive line and offensive line.
"I know that as a person, he's one of the best people that I've had around in my life and probably the second-most important person in my life, too. I wouldn't be where I am today without someone like Coach Dooley."
The redshirt junior has learned enough in his time at Tennessee to understand what needs to happen and do what it takes to complete his task. Hood says the defense can definitely play as well against Vanderbilt as they did in the first half against Mizzou.
"With Coach Dooley simplifying things it's allowing guys to see everything in practice and see exactly what it's going to look like," Hood said.
As the players finish out their classes and their football season, more than just a few things are on the line, but Hood says he's ready to take it on, beginning against Vanderbilt on Saturday.
NO UNDERDOGS IN RIVALRIES
Seniors Willie Bohannon and Zach Rogers know that when it comes to rivalries, records don't matter.
During their time at Tennessee, the Vols have remained undefeated against in-state rival Vanderbilt, but each game has not come easily for Tennessee, including an overtime victory last season.
This year, Vanderbilt has already earned its bid to a bowl and has won its last four games, three in the SEC heading into the meeting with the Vols.
"There's been a definite change," said Rogers. "But give all the credit to Vandy. They're doing a great job. They're confident in what they do and they're doing a great job this season under new coaching. They believe in what they do. We've got to be what Tennessee is and carry the fight to Vandy."
Despite Tennessee looking like the underdog heading into this match up, Bohannon knows that underdogs don't exist in rivalry games.
"It is a rivalry game so there really is no underdog if you think about it," said Bohannon. "Last year they were the underdog and years before. They still played us hard. We are going to play them hard. It is a rivalry. It's Vanderbilt."
The Vols will put their all into this game, because they know if they win out, they are headed to a bowl.
"We're really just trying to finish the season out," said Rogers. "We're playing each Saturday as they come to us. We can't look too far ahead in the future. We've just got to focus on the present. I've got one more game left in this stadium right here, so that's kind of on my mind. But we're obviously focused on Vandy this week."
"We want to go to a bowl game," said Bohannon. "It is more based on that than it is that it is Vanderbilt or Kentucky. We want to go to a bowl game. We don't want to be sitting at home during the postseason so we have to win these two games."
The Tennessee defense suffered a big blow last Saturday when sophomore linebacker Curt Maggitt was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
In his absence, junior Jacques Smith will return to the starting lineup at the SAM linebacker position, while senior Willie Bohannon will spell both Smith and sophomore Jordan Williams, who will start at JACK.
“When a brother falls down, we all have to pick it up for him,” Smith said. “We are going to pick up the slack and, hopefully, there will be no difference.”
Exactly how and how much each player will be utilized will be predicated on the Vols’ upcoming opponents as much as anything.
“A lot of it depends on what package we are in,” Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley said. “We have Jacques, we have Jordan Williams, we have Willie Bo at outside linebacker, and then [Raiques] Crump gets in the mix a little bit. But really right now between Jordan, Jacques and Willie we kind of have three for two spots.”
Maggitt’s injury leaves some big shoes to fill as he has recorded 30 tackles, including a team-high 5.0 TFLs for a loss of 37 yards this season, but Bohannon feels that he and his teammates are prepared for the challenge.
“I am going to have to step up like I have been doing whenever we had to rotate,” Bohannon said. “It is really nothing different, we have been doing this the whole season. We all have learned both sides and it is the reason we have learned both sides since training camp. Right now, Jacques and Jordan will be outside and we will rotate from there.”
The most difficult adjustment to make will be simply getting used to not having Maggitt around them on the field and the sidelines.
“It is going to be hard because we are used to him being out there,” Bohannon said. “It would probably be the same if it happened to me and he would be out there. We both know our positions, it is just that we have been out there together and it is kind of crazy now that he is out.”
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On Vanderbilt’s receivers)
“Both of them are long, they have good stature, they run good routes. They are very instinctive. They have good body control. They just have a lot of experience. You watch them and they wear people out everybody they play. They have a lot of consistency, they are where they are supposed to be all the time. The quarterback, obviously has a lot of confidence in them. Their stature helps them on those down the field opportunity balls, they go up and get it.”
(On Jordan Rodgers improving since last year)
“I think it is just experience in the system. He is making a lot less mistakes, which is huge. They do a real good job of helping him out and managing the game. He gets the ball to the runner, he gets the ball to those outside guys and they are able to move the chains because of it.”
(On Jordan Williams)
“He is improving every week. His biggest thing is just consistency with experience. I think Jordan is going to be a real good player for us in the future. The biggest thing is just experience.”
(On third-down conversions during the fourth quarter)
“I hadn’t noticed that trend as much. The trend I noticed was, last week we didn’t run the ball, we were really bad on first downs. That might contribute to the third downs. We have a lot more long distance plays. I would have to go study it and see. I think we are right about forty something percent. I would have to go see. A lot of times it is the situation, long yardage. A lot of times you are throwing a lot so you don’t have the benefit of the run game if you are coming from behind. A lot of things contribute to it. Best thing on third down is to A – stay out of it and B – when you are in it be third and six or less, you have a better chance.”
JUNIOR QB TYLER BRAY
(On Dooley’s meeting with the team)
“He’s going to be here for the rest of the season, but the team already knew that. There was no meeting after the game or anything. We know that he’s here to stay, so we’re just going to try to get these last two wins for him.”
(On losing the fourth quarter)
“They’re just scoring more points than we are. They’re just executing better than we are. Defense is not getting stops and offense is just not getting points. It’s always frustrating, we haven’t won like Tennessee is supposed to.”
(On practicing better)
“I’ve just been working on my footwork. A lot of throws I’ve not made is because of my footwork. Coach Chaney and Coach Manley (Offensive Graduate Assistant) have been riding me to get it down and it’s helped. Three games, throwing for over 530 yards would be a good game for anyone. I can’t say that I’ve improved that much, but I’ve grown up and grown into my body a little more and I’ve become a little more athletic, which sounds crazy, but I have.”
(On Vanderbilt’s defense)
“They’re a bunch of veteran guys and they know football very well. They’ve been around the game for a long time. We just need to execute our base offense – they’ve got a good defense and we have a pretty good offense. It’ll be a battle. We just need to get the win over Vanderbilt and then we can worry about Kentucky.”
(On winning for the seniors)
“[A win] would mean everything to [the seniors]. We sent out the seniors last year with a bad taste last year and we don’t want to do that again.”
JUNIOR WR JUSTIN HUNTER
(On what impresses him about Vanderbilt)
“Just their fight. They play really hard and they don’t care who they’re going against. They’re just going to play hard to make sure they can win.”
(On how fired up he expects Vandy to be this year)
“They had a really close game last year, so they’re expecting to win this year. I guess it’s going to be a tough game. It’s going to be neck-and-neck all the way.”
(On if this is Tyler Bray’s best three-game stretch of his career)
“Yeah, I think our chemistry is there. He’s out there practicing really good and it shows on the field. I think he’s a lot calmer than he was at the beginning of the season.”
(On what stands out on Vanderbilt’s defense)
“They have a lot of seniors and juniors. They basically wait for you to make a mistake. You go out there and play your hardest. Be amiss to your assignments and the game can change.”
JUNIOR LB JACQUES SMITH
(On the difference between the first half and second half/overtime against Missouri)
“Honestly, I just feel like we gave up some plays. We came out kind of cold and they hit us with a big one. Then we went 16 plays of good, sound football and then another big throw and that kind of gashed us and put us in bad field position. I feel like that was a main factor. They continued to have great field position on us.”
(On if the defense got tired)
“We didn’t tire and our confidence was definitely not shaken. We knew that we were better than those guys, it just all came down to who was the best man at the time and they beat us in overtime.”
(On whether the game has more meaning since he is from Ooltewah)
“It definitely does. All Tennesseans know UT is the school, but Vanderbilt has been on the rise and is a good program. They have themselves going a little bit this year, so we will see how it turns out Saturday.”
(On what he expects from Vanderbilt)
“I don’t expect anything less than what usually happens. It is a big game and everyone knows what is on the line with bragging rights to be the ‘Team of Tennessee.’ Those guys work just as hard as we do and we look forward to having a great game with them like we do every year.”
JUNIOR WR CORDARRELLE PATTERSON
(On Bray’s practice habits)
“He is being a leader. He is just out there running things and making us a better offense. He is telling us what we need to do, making sure we are going fast, and keeping our offense going in the right direction.”
(On looking too far into the future)
“It’s not too hard to stay focused. We just don’t pay attention to that other stuff. We are just going into it week-in and week-out, and just hoping for a win. This week we have just been practicing hard and expecting a win.”
(On his own play this season)
“I really didn’t expect it. Everything just happened so quick. I’m really glad it happened, but I wasn’t expecting all this at all.”
SENIOR WR ZACH ROGERS
(On the team’s late game struggles)
“When things are not going our way, it’s very frustrating for us and very disappointing. One of these days, things are going to turn around and we’re going to get those fourth-quarter wins like we know how to. So, we’ve just got to continue to fight.”
(On how tough it was last year to watch bowl season from home)
“It was tough sitting at home, watching all of those bowl games, knowing that you should be in one of them. We don’t want that to happen this year. That was a bad feeling in our stomachs last year. So we’ve just got to come out fighting these next two games and make a bowl game. That’s what’s on our mind right now.”
(On what the Vanderbilt game means to him)
“It means a lot. I’ve got a lot of family and friends coming to this one. I definitely want to do my best to make them proud of me. But at the same time, I’m still fighting for this team and we’re fighting for each other to get these last two wins.
RS SENIOR LB WILLIE BOHANNON
(On going to a bowl game)
“It is extra motivation, I don’t want to be a part of the senior class that didn’t make it again and a lot of other seniors feel the same way. Who knows how much football I am going to play after this so we don’t want to end it after the Kentucky game. We want to end it after a bowl game.”
(On the coaching changes through his career)
“It was pretty emotional, you can imagine, who knows what is going to happen next year. I have been around all of these coaches that have been out and in. It has been a difficult situation. I feel bad for his family having to go through this. I know that he doesn’t want us to think about him and instead think about winning these games but in this situation it is kind of hard because I saw Coach Fulmer have to leave and he cried. All of the assistant coaches who left, it is a hard situation to be in.”
(On Sal Sunseri coaching from the press box)
“It was a big impact. Coach Staley is an upbeat motivational kind of guy. Whenever you make a play, no matter how small, even if you are just where you were supposed to be he is going to congratulate you. I think for a lot of the younger guys that are playing it is good for them because anytime they do something good they are going to get a pat on the back and you don’t always look for that, sometimes it helps.”
(On the simplified defense)
“I think everything was cleaner, we still made a few mistakes and that is the SEC for you. Even if Missouri was only in the SEC for one year, they have been through all these games. In any big college game you can’t make a mistake and that is what happened last week. Those few plays that hit big.”
RS JUNIOR DL DANIEL HOOD
(On what it would mean to be bowl eligible)
“It would give us more time to work because we're obviously not where we need to be technique-wise or discipline-wise, and things like that. That extra month will give us more time to develop our technique and get better.”
(On Vanderbilt’s quarterback, Jordan Rodgers)
“He does just about everything well. The [defense] will try to get a read on him at the line with the hand motions he does and you can’t really get any. And then on every play, he turns around and he looks the same – he’ll do a simple handoff and make it look like a boot leg. He’ll freeze that backside in from running it down. We’ll look at that and we see his discipline as well. Then you look at some of the throws he’s made this year – they’re really good and of course, he’s a fast guy. It’s not like we have a quarterback back there running a 5.8, he could out-run all of us out there.”
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)