KNOXVILLE — They don’t count as turnovers, but Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley considers them to be.
Twice in the second quarter, Cincinnati had fourth down with 1 yard to go for a first down near midfield. Both times the Volunteers’ defense rose to the occasion and forced the Bearcats to turn the ball over on downs.
“People don’t realize how big those are, ’cause it’s not just the stop, it’s field position,” Dooley said. “Those are about 40-yard stops, turnovers. That just generates juice; you get a little excited. Those plays are huge on fourth down.”
Both stops occurred with the Cincinnati trailing just 21-14, very much still in the game.
“It’s a great feeling,” UT senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. “We go in there every week talking about big stops and getting the small stuff. When we go out there and stop them like that, it’s big momentum for the offense and defense.”
UT’s defense first gained the momentum with 11:42 remaining in the first half. Cincinnati tailback Isaiah Pead took a handoff from quarterback Zach Collaros and was hit in the backfield for a 1-yard loss by UT freshman linebacker A.J. Johnson and sophomore defensive tackle Maurice Couch.
The Vols took over at the UC 48-yard line but couldn’t capitalize, missing a field-goal try.
After the teams traded punts, the Bearcats again faced a fourth-and-1, this time at the UT 46-yard line. Instead of giving the ball to its All-Big East running back again, Cincinnati opted to let Collaros keep after the shotgun snap and run off right tackle. He was stopped for no gain: Jackson penetrated through the line and made the tackle along with sophomore strong safety Brent Brewer.
“It was kind of predictable,” senior middle linebacker Austin Johnson said of Collaros’ run. “I had seen them do that on film, that empty-set with the quarterback, and I knew he was going to run it so that made it a lot easier.”
But UT’s defense was not done making big plays. After the Vols took the opening possession of the second half down the field for a touchdown, making the score 35-14, Cincinnati marched to the UT 1-yard line in five plays. UT again stood firm, stopping Collaros twice on the ground before his pass intended for receiver Anthony McClung was broken up in the end zone by junior Prentiss Waggner.
“The two fourth-and-1s at midfield were giant plays to allow us to pull away,” Dooley said. “Then the goal-line stop in the third quarter, those were difference-makers.”
The Bearcats finished with 166 yards on the ground. Pead ran for 155 but had 104 in the first quarter, including a 65-yard touchdown run on his first carry of the game.
UT coaches and players made it a point during the week that Collaros was a threat to beat them on the ground. Dooley said the Vols had to defend him as if he were a running back. He finished with just 1 net rushing yard and was sacked twice.
“We were really physical,” Jackson said. “We went out there and took it to them.”