Vols notebook: Darrell Taylor's domination earns national honor

Tennessee's Darrell Taylor makes a tackle during the third quarter of Saturday's game against Kentucky in Knoxville.
Tennessee's Darrell Taylor makes a tackle during the third quarter of Saturday's game against Kentucky in Knoxville.

KNOXVILLE - The Tennessee football team met two important objectives in Saturday's home game against Kentucky by jumping out to a big lead and forcing the normally run-heavy Wildcats to pass.

The Volunteers accomplished the latter by stuffing the Wildcats on first and second downs, which resulted in a number of third-and-long situations.

That led to a lot of Darrell Taylor in Kentucky's backfield.

The Tennessee defensive end finished with four sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in his team's 24-7 dismantling of Kentucky. On Sunday, the 6-foot-4, 247-pound redshirt junior was named the Walter Camp national defensive player of the week.

"All week we've been stressing not letting the quarterback get out of the pocket, and I think the interior guys did an awesome job of pushing the pocket so the edge guys could get around the edge and make sacks and make plays," Taylor said Saturday night. "That's what we stressed all week, and it turned out good for us in the game."

The upset of former SEC East title contender Kentucky (7-3, 5-3 Southeastern Conference), which dropped from 12th to 20th in the Associated Press poll released Sunday, was big for Tennessee's hopes of playing a 13th game this season.

The Vols (5-5, 2-4) are within a win of bowl eligibility with two chances to get the needed victory. They host Missouri (6-4, 2-4) this Saturday, with CBS televising the 3:30 p.m. game, and visit Vanderbilt (4-6, 1-5) on Nov. 24 for a 4 p.m. game that will be shown on the SEC Network.

If the Vols are able to pressure Missouri's Drew Lock and Vanderbilt's Kyle Shurmur the way they did Kentucky's Terry Wilson Jr., another notable defensive performance could be on the way. Taylor has seven sacks this season, all of them from two games - he had three in the 38-12 loss at Georgia on Sept. 29.

After his latest big game, he talked about what made it possible.

"I think it's just going through practice, making sure that I'm sound in watching the ball, I'm sound in my get-off, making sure I'm using my speed to my abilities," Taylor said. "I think it's just my coaches staying on me about not running past the quarterback or not letting the quarterback get out of the pocket.

"I think we did a great job this weekend. Our coaches stressed it, and it showed in the game."

The Vols finished with a season-high five sacks against the Wildcats, with senior defensive lineman Shy Tuttle also getting to Wilson. In the past two weeks, Tennessee has eight sacks, pushing its season total to 21, and appears to have taken a step in the right direction on defense.

In their first six games against Power Five conference opponents this season, the Vols allowed an average of 457.3 yards of offense per game. In the past two - the win against Kentucky followed a 14-3 victory against Charlotte - they've allowed a total of 506.

"I think a lot of it goes into preparation and the plan," first-year Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "You would like to know what the magic is to all that.

"It's interesting, you know. I think (it's about) creating the right habits, doing it every day at practice, probably developing some confidence there. But when you talk just about the entire team, you know, you keep going out there and trying to develop the right habits whether it's playing the right technique at corner or taking the correct step with a defensive lineman, communicating on the offensive line - there are lots of things that go into having a good football team and being good as a unit. Our guys are working hard to improve on that, and now we've got to continue to do that."

Murphy makes plays

Tennessee's offense had a number of explosive plays against the Wildcats, with two of the longest plays from scrimmage involving receiver Jordan Murphy. The 6-foot, 177-pound sophomore touched the ball only twice, but those opportunities covered 97 yards and led to points in each case.

The first was a 39-yard reception on a deep fade route over the top of the Kentucky defense in the first quarter, a drive that ended with Brent Cimaglia's 19-yard field goal. The second - a 59-yard run on an end-around in the third quarter on a drive that ended with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Jarrett Guarantano to Dominick Wood-Anderson - almost didn't happen.

"That was a really good call by (offensive coordinator Tyson) Helton," Pruitt said Sunday on his coach's show. "When he called the play, I was complaining about the call. I'm glad he didn't listen to me.

"There was good blocking, good execution. To be able to run these plays, you've got to have some success running the football directly at some folks, and we had."

For the season, Murphy has only eight touches (seven receptions, one rush), but those plays have gained 192 yards, with one of them a touchdown - a 50-yard catch in the 59-3 win against East Tennessee State on Sept. 8.

"Coaches have a lot of faith in him, and we have a lot of faith in him as well," junior receiver Marquez Callaway said. "He is probably one of the best route runners we have. All he has to do is wait for his time."

November norm

Saturday's win was the program's first over a Top 25 team in November since beating No. 6 Miami in 2003. Tennessee had lost eight straight November games against ranked opponents since, with two losses each to LSU, Arkansas and Missouri, and losses to Auburn and Notre Dame.

The last full month of college football's regular season has historically been a time the Vols have dominated, but not so much this decade. Tennessee is 22-12 in November starting with the 2010 season, including two years (2013, 2017) in which they lost three games. That was something that never happened in the previous decade, one in which the Vols were 33-9 in the final month.

With a 2-0 start to this November, the Vols could be trending back in that familiar direction.

On Sunday, Pruitt said it's not about building toward the future, but rather building toward the finish.

"We're not really looking for next year," he said. "We're looking for every team we have here to finish the right way. You should be better as the season goes. All the best teams play their best ball at the end of the year, so at the end of the year we need to be playing our best ball."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

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