KNOXVILLE — After giving too much in key games this season, Tennessee's defense finally has begun to take things back.
The No. 19 Vols (7-3, 4-2 SEC), who host Vanderbilt Saturday at 1 p.m. in their home finale, have generated nine turnovers on defense in their last three games. That number equals what UT's defense forced in the first seven games of the season.
“I don’t think there's any question we’re a more confident football team, and to be a good football team, I think you have to play with confidence,” defensive coordinator John Chavis said. “I think our guys understand what we’re trying to get done now and really, not that there’s ever been a lack of effort, but certainly if you don’t fully understand it’s hard to go out there and go full speed.
“I think we’ve got guys playing with more confidence right now and playing with more speed, and when you’ve got talented guys then plays start happening. We’re starting to see more results from that standpoint.”
In bottling up Arkansas 34-13 on Saturday, the Vols picked off three Razorback pass attempts and, in part, helped UT’s offense average starting its drives at the 40-yard line.
“It’s a lot easier when defense is getting takeaways. When we can run the football, we can do a lot of good things,” senior tight end Chris Brown said. “Starting on the 40-yard line, you can run the football and get the down and distance in your favor and you can do a lot of special things. You really don’t have to worry about much when the defense is playing like it was last week.
“All you have to do is go out there and put up 10 or 15 points on the board and we can win the ballgame.”
While the defense has helped get possession back in the hands of the offense during UT’s three-game winning streak, the offense hasn’t given much away. Erik Ainge’s fourth-quarter interception against South Carolin helped the Vols post a plus-8 turnover margin.
“It keeps coming back to the players to make sure we take care of ourselves, first from a fundamental standpoint and ball security,” said UT coach Phillip Fulmer, who could secure his fifth SEC Championship game appearance with two more wins. “We’ve had nine takeaways, not counting fourth-down stops.”
That defensive generosity has the offense in a greedy mood.
“That’s the mindset we have going into it. When you're starting on the 40-yard line, you have a very high percentage of scoring,” said Brown, who leads the team with five touchdown receptions. “And that's how we have to try to look at it. We want to try to get points every time whether it's touchdowns or field goals.”