MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Tennessee's defense will never be able to erase November's 63-38 loss at South Carolina from the record books, but the Volunteers have been creating pleasant memories since then.
Rebounding from a disastrous trip to Williams-Brice Stadium with a resounding 56-0 victory at Vanderbilt a week later was impressive, but it won't have near the lasting effect of Friday night's 31-14 surprise thumping of Clemson in the Orange Bowl. By prevailing inside Hard Rock Stadium, the Vols became the ninth team in program history to notch an 11-win season and the first since 2001.
"I know people get tired of me saying this, but we live in a 1-0 mindset," Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks said early Saturday morning. "Obviously we didn't play as well as we wanted to play against South Carolina, but at the end of the day, we made the adjustments we needed to make, looked ourselves in the mirror and moved on. We did the same thing after the Vanderbilt game, and then to hold the ACC champions to 14 points — my hat is off to our players.
"Those guys prepared the right way, and that obviously showed tonight."
Quarterback Joe Milton III, making his second consecutive start for the injured Hendon Hooker, completed 19 of 28 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns on his way to being named Orange Bowl MVP. Receiver Squirrel White had a season-high nine catches for 108 yards and a touchdown and was an MVP candidate as well, and the same could be said for linebacker Aaron Beasley and edge rusher Byron Young.
Beasley and Young each had two sacks, with Beasley tallying 12 overall tackles and four tackles for loss.
"We had some players opt out and Hendon was hurt, and people were saying we wouldn't look like the same team, but we had the same mentality," Young said. "I always believed, and I never gave up on this team. Joe showed a lot of people up, because a lot of people had doubts.
"This program is going to go a long way. They're in great hands."
Young played his final game for the Vols but considered opting out as well, citing defensive line coach Rodney Garner as a factor in his decision to compete.
"When I spoke to him, he was just real with me," Young said. "He understood why I was considering not playing in this game, and he told me to pray on it. He didn't try to steer me to play. He left it in my hands, and it made me more comfortable in making my decision, because I knew he was behind me."
The Vols were far from dominating defensively against Clemson, getting outgained 484-375, but they forced the Tigers to play catch-up and into attempting 56 passes. Clemson freshman quarterback Cade Klubnik threw a pair of interceptions, and the Tigers went 0-for-3 on fourth-down conversions.
Clemson's lone touchdown occurred with 10:01 remaining to make it 21-14, but that seven-point margin was gone 87 seconds later, when Milton and Ramel Keyton connected for a 46-yard scoring strike.
"We understand where our strengths and weaknesses are," Banks said. "You've got to give some to get some, and our guys understood that, and when they needed to bow up, they did. Ultimately, the name of the game is trying to keep them out of the end zone. Our kids understood fourth-and-1, and our kids understood third down. We were not perfect by any stretch, but I thought they put themselves in the best position to be successful."
Said Beasley: "I just feel like we play better when the pressure is on."
Tennessee also had memorable defensive performances this season in lopsided wins over LSU and Kentucky, but Banks has a very basic barometer for what he considers a success.
"We won 11 games, and that's the defense I want," he said. "Nobody wants to hear that, because they get caught up in stats, but, ultimately, we just want to play a winning standard of football, and that's great situational football, and I feel like we've done that all year.
"We can point to this season and say it was fun, but we've really got to start back over and get this thing going. Every year is a new year, and we can't take any of these tackles or shutouts or 14-point games with us, but obviously this experience was great."
Odds and ends
Tennessee has played 26 games with Josh Heupel as head coach and has scored at least one first-quarter touchdown in 24 of them. ... The Vols finished the season plus-11 in turnover margin. ... Sixth-year senior linebacker Solon Page III set a career best in his final game with 10 tackles.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com.