KNOXVILLE - Derek Dooley noticed it on the first offensive play from scrimmage on Saturday night.
When Tennessee's offensive line fired off the ball and pushed the Vanderbilt defensive line back as tailback Tauren Poole bounced outside to his left for a 15-yard gain. Dooley, the Volunteers' second-year coach, admittedly got excited.
"I liked how the line was blocking and how Tauren was running," he said after UT's 27-21 overtime win. "They looked different. The line was coming off the ball and hitting them. I saw it the first play. I'm hoping, you know, they just keep staying on that track."
UT ran for 101 yards on 30 carries, though a 16-yard loss on an errant snap in the first quarter and five-yard loss on a kneel down at the end of regulation slightly skews those numbers. Poole ran 19 times for 107 yards and a touchdown, and Rajion Neal had 29 yards on six carries mostly on end-arounds or out of the wildcat formation. Those two players averaged more then five yards per carry.
The Commodores held Kentucky to 32 yards rushing a week ago and limited an Arkansas team that ran for 254 yards on UT to just 72 yards. For a UT run game that entered the game 116th in the country, Saturday's performance was an improvement. There were 30 players, including two quarterbacks, who had more than the 919 yards with which UT entered the Vanderbilt game.
The Vols actually dropped a spot to 117th, but Dooley took positives from how UT ran the ball.
"That's something," he said. "I was real proud of the offensive line. They were flat-backing and hitting. That was the first time I'd seen that, and I hope that's a good testament of where we're headed running the ball."
UT gets its entire offensive line back next season, though Poole will be gone. The senior notched the ninth 100-yard rushing game of his career. He had run for 92 yards on 43 carries in UT's previous three games after fighting for 137 yards in games against top-ranked LSU and second-ranked Alabama.
"I was excited about the opportunity to run behind [the offensive line]," he said. "They said they didn't want this [next game] to be my last game, as well as I didn't want this to be my last game. We came together as a team, we played as a team and the result was what we wanted."
UT appeared to bring more blitzes than it has most of the season on Saturday night. The Vols got just two sacks, but they applied constant pressure to Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers most of the game.
"We knew Vanderbilt had a dual-threat quarterback who could make plays with his feet," Waggner said, "so it was just a matter of getting after him and being and aggressive with him and locking those guys down not the back end."
The Vols elected to give some cushion to the Commodores' receivers with their cornerbacks, but UT kept most everything in front of them. Cornerbacks Izauea Lanier and Marsalis Teague made seven tackles apiece, and safety Rod Wilks, who replaced Brian Randolph after the freshman left the game in the first half, made seven stops, one in the backfield and recovered a fumble.
"I finally got the opportunity to show my talent and play hard for my teammates and coaches," Wilks said. "It was a great feeling. I had a great mind set of going out, making tackles and playing with good technique."
Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt's leading receiver, had 74 yards on six catches, and Chris Boyd added six receptions for 66 yards and his team-leading seventh touchdown. Waggner made one interception, and Eric Gordon won the game with a pick-and-return in overtime.
"We really had problems in the secondary closing to the ball and covering," Dooley said. "There were a lot of times we had two-on-one and one-on-one and they were just outperforming us. We had to mix it up and try to get some pressure on them, try to get the ball out quicker."
The three interceptions were the most since the Vols had four against Ole Miss last November.
"We took it all upon on ourselves," Waggner said. "I think we had a good of practice. The coaches enforced not letting the scout team catch balls on us, and I think it carried over on the game field."
Poole wasn't the only senior playing with a sense of urgency on Saturday night. Linebacker Austin Johnson was all over the field on defense, racking up a team-high nine tackles, a sack and his team-leading fourth interception.
"I just want to give God the glory," said the 6-foot-2, 240-pound former fullback. "It's been awesome, and I'm glad to be sitting up here with a smile on my face. It was awesome to see everything that went on [Saturday night]. We've been through a lot since we've been here, but we stuck together."
The native of Hickory, N.C., is one of 13 players nationally who leads his team in tackles and interceptions. Johnson is a first-year starter at middle linebacker.
"He's a real good guy," said junior defensive back Prentiss Waggner. "He has a such a good feel for the game. He leads the team interceptions, so that describes [his] ball skills and the type of IQ [he has] for the game."