Wiedmer: Elliott Berry's lone solo tackle most important of Vols' win

Wiedmer: Elliott Berry's lone solo tackle most important of Vols' win

September 24th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee senior linebacker Elliott Berry knocks UMass quarterback Andrew Ford's helmet off while making a tackle during Saturday's game at Neyland Stadium. Ford did not return, and the Vols held on for a 17-13 victory.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — Thank goodness for Elliott Berry.

If Tennessee football coach Butch Jones, all of Berry's teammates on Team 121 and the entirety of the Big Orange Nation aren't repeating those five words over and over today, perhaps they should.

Because were it not for the senior linebacker knocking University of Massachusetts quarterback Andrew Ford out of Saturday's first-ever game between the programs, it might have ended far differently for the Volunteers than a nervous 17-13 win.

"The performance was just flat-out unacceptable," Jones said afterward, referring to the Vols as a unit.

But Berry's lone solo tackle of the game was more than acceptable. It might well have been about the only more-than-acceptable performance of the whole afternoon for those who bleed Clorox Orange. More than that, it might have saved Jones from the most embarrassing loss of his four-plus seasons in Knoxville, and that's saying something, because he has lost to Vanderbilt twice.

Berry's blast came with a little more than a minute to play in the third quarter, the Minutemen in possession of the ball at their 30 and owning all the momentum. They had forced the Vols into a three-and-out after Ford's 13-yard touchdown pass to Sadiq Palmer with 2:51 left in the third.

Let Ford's Minutemen artfully construct a second 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to take the lead, and who knows what might have happened? The Vols had suddenly grown either blatantly bored or terribly tight. They produced but 58 yards of offense over the final two periods.

And the UMass starting quarterback knows what he's doing on a football field. He entered Neyland Stadium having thrown six touchdowns and but one interception this season despite his team standing 0-4 at Saturday's dawn.

From a football metrics perspective, Ford began the weekend with a 138.6 quarterback rating. By comparison, Vols starter Quinten Dormady's cumulative rating was 128.2 after Saturday's game, though that number is noticeably inflated by a 188.0 rating against Indiana State.

The point is, with Tennessee's offense on the fritz and a more-than-capable quarterback on the other side getting hotter by the quarter, this was anything but a certain victory for the Vols until Berry buried Ford with the kind of fearsome force that knocked the quarterback's helmet from his head. It was the kind of hit so often displayed by his NFL safety brother Eric, a two-time All-American with the Vols who has been a three-time All-Pro with the Kansas City Chiefs.

So brutal was Berry's blast that it took Ford three or four minutes to leave the field, never to return. In his place came Ross Comis, the team's former starter who runs it much better than he throws it, as shown by his 5-yard touchdown run in the opening half.

But it was Ford who could sort of keep Tennesee's defense honest despite being sacked five times. Merely consider that with Ford under center in the final half, the Minutemen generated 66 yards of offense and one touchdown. Without him for all the fourth quarter, they generated 54 yards, but 42 of those came on a single run by Andy Isabella that produced their only first down of the period.

"If you told me it was going to be a four-point game and that we would have the ball with six minutes left with the ball on the 50-yard-line, I would've taken that any day," said losing coach Mark Whipple. "We just didn't get it done in the last five minutes."

Actually, with the exception of that one Isabella run, they didn't get it done from the moment Ford was felled. And that's a huge credit to Berry.

But it's tough to find what to credit the Vols with other than winning. They were favored by four touchdowns. The Minutemen's four defeats coming in were by a total of 31 points to the four-headed monster that is Hawaii, Coastal Carolina, Old Dominion and Temple.

Not only that, but needing to send a message that they'd shaken off last week's shocking last-second loss at Florida, the Vols' first three offensive possessions concluded with a punt 81 seconds into the game, with Quinten Dormady fumbling and with Brent Cimaglia missing a field goal.

Perhaps the citizens of the Big Orange Nation weren't the only ones suffering from post-Florida depression.

"There's no excuse to come out here and play the way we played," said Vols offensive lineman Brett Kendrick, a fifth-year senior.

Added running back John Kelly, "We've got a lot of room to improve."

And not a lot of time to do it. Georgia arrives at Neyland this Saturday. South Carolina invades two weeks after that. Then come road games at Alabama and Kentucky. The Vols will be favored by four touchdowns in none of those but will happily accept four-point wins in all of them.

As Whipple met with the media, he said of his team's struggles down the stretch, "We didn't get the play we needed when we just needed one more play."

As any relieved Tennessee supporter should know today, that's probably because Berry made sure the Minuteman most needed to make that play wasn't on the field to make it.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.


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