Vols performance boosts confidence

Vols performance boosts confidence

September 21st, 2009 by Wes Rucker in Sports - College

KNOXVILLE -- The mood outside the University of Tennessee's locker room Saturday night was surreal.

UT had just lost by 10 points at archrival Florida but, with few exceptions, the Volunteers and their coaches seemed nearly satisfied.

First-year coach Lane Kiffin and many of his players -- even the older ones -- were disappointed but far from despondent about the 23-13 loss.

"This is bizarre," one veteran Florida sportswriter said. "I never thought I'd see a Tennessee team react like this to a 10-point loss in The Swamp."

It seemed as if several Vols enjoyed saying, "I told you so," to reporters who predicted they'd lose by 50 or more points to the top-ranked, defending national champs.

This game was viewed by many as an extenuating circumstance, though. Florida's players didn't simply want to beat the brash Kiffin's Vols. They wanted to humiliate UT, and they didn't, and they couldn't hide their frustrations after failing to accomplish that task.

Florida coach Urban Meyer had to coax smiles from his Gators in the postgame locker room. He remarked about reminding his seniors that they'd just capped an undefeated career against the Vols.

"I think there's so much pressure on this team to perform perfectly, which is good," Meyer said. "I'd rather be on that end than on, 'Boy, great job, we lost by 10.'"

That last sentence isn't far from what the Vols' body language suggested.

"We came down to The Swamp and played ball right with the No. 1 team in the country, and we had chances to win," UT junior defensive end Chris Walker said. "I'm not happy with any loss, but I think this is a big confidence boost for our team.

"We're not happy with the loss, but we'll take it how it comes, we'll take it in stride and we'll just get better from it. We're not done yet. We're just getting started, I promise you."

Safety Eric Berry, another Vols junior who won't play again in The Swamp and might never again face the Gators, smiled throughout a 10-minute interview.

Berry sounded more like coach than a player when saying this season was "honestly about now and the future." He mentioned the game's potential affect on recruiting, despite the fact that he'll probably never be a college teammate to any current high school senior.

"To be honest, it does help us in the future, just to feel like we're part of being the class that will put Tennessee back to where it's supposed to be," Berry said. "To be the first class with Coach Kiffin that put Tennessee back on track to that dominance again, that's a big statement. That's something to feel good about."

Montario Hardesty, who fought through a rash of leg injuries for five years before finally emerging as the team's top tailback, made similar statements.

"Everybody on our team hates losing. I hate losing," Hardesty said. "But there's going to be some good things that come off this film that we can build on. We have a young team, but if we just correct some small mistakes, I think we can continue to get better this year. And that's going to help all these young guys down the road.

"We want to win every game from here on out this year ... but we can also help these young guys, who are going to be some great players here one day."

Walker said the Vols "sent a message that when you play Tennessee, you're going to have to be ready every game.

"No matter what the point spread is, no matter where you're playing us and no matter what you're ranked in the country, we're going to be ready for you every game," Walker continued. "We have a long season to go. If we build off this game, there's going to be a lot of good things coming out of our season -- and for our future, too."

Kiffin hopes to rebuild the UT program into one where light-hearted humor is never tolerated in the immediate aftermath of an SEC loss; where players don't gloat about losing by just one-third of the point spread; where college seniors don't talk about high school seniors; where coaches don't joke about coming back to the Sunshine State with UT men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl, who is 7-1 against the Gators.

"From our point of view ... we're excited, because there were a lot of young players play in that game, a lot of guys who are going to be here for a while," Kiffin said. "To come in here and have success at times like we did at times in the game, it's big to build their confidence.

"But I'm sorry for our seniors who didn't ever beat Florida. I wanted to give that gift to them."

Hardesty and his classmates wanted that gift, but now they've graciously resolved to laying the foundation for future success at Florida.

"Tennessee will be back to the big-time, man ... and I'm going to keep playing hard and help make it happen," Hardesty said.