Tennessee's Jalen Hurd (1) breaks the tackle of Vanderbilt's Oren Burks (20) for a gain. The Vanderbilt Commodores visited the Tennessee Volunteers in SEC football action November 28, 2015.

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Vols 'welcome the challenge' in facing another top defense

KNOXVILLE — The Outback Bowl won't be Tennessee's first encounter with a highly ranked defense.

The Volunteers have seen a few of those already this season.

And they've had success in those games.

Northwestern, ranked 11th nationally in total defense, will be the fifth top-15 defense Tennessee has faced in 2015, and the Vols averaged nearly 400 yards and 24.5 points against Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Missouri.

Throw in Vanderbilt and Oklahoma, ranked 31st and 32nd in total defense, and the Vols averaged 392.5 yards and nearly 30 points against the best six defenses on the schedule.

"It seems like every week it's been like that," offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said this month. "I mean, I can't think back to where a defense, when we went in and we're actually playing them, was ranked low. It's kind of been that (way) every week.

"I think our guys welcome the challenge, and yet, too, what I've really appreciated with this group is the respect they've always had for the opponent. Our guys study them hard, on their own, in extra time, and our coaches have done a good job in preparation."

Tennessee surpassed its opponent's season average in yards allowed seven times this season, and five of those were against the six top defenses it faced.

The Vols also averaged nearly 217 yards rushing in those six games, and that included 254 yards at Florida in September and 248 at Missouri last month.

Running back Jalen Hurd had his 100-yard games against Oklahoma, Florida, Missouri and Vanderbilt.

"It just says we're a great run team," Vols quarterback Josh Dobbs said. "We've done a great job moving the ball, using all of our playmakers in the backfield and just getting guys in space, getting the matchups we want and making plays when they're there. We have to continue to do that moving forward.

"Northwestern knows that. They know the stats, so they'll have a plan in place for that. We have to be ready to go."

In the Wildcats' 10 wins they allowed more than 20 points just twice. Coach Pat Fitzgerald's team shut out Eastern Illinois and Minnesota and contained a Stanford offense that went on to win the Pac-12 championship.

In the season opener against Northwestern, Stanford had just 240 yards of total offense, converted just three of 15 third downs into firsts and turned the ball over twice, and Christian McCaffrey, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, had just 66 yards on 12 carries and 23 yards on five receptions.

After managing only two field goals in Evanston, Stanford averaged nearly 40 points in its next 12 games.

Tennessee's chore is limiting how much rust builds up during the monthlong layoff between games.

"The season ends, and we go into finals," running back Alvin Kamara said. "It kind of switches gears into just-school mode, then we get a break and some time off. Guys obviously enjoy the time off after a long season.

"Coming back, you have to get the small things back, the little mechanics, get your wind back a little bit and get back used to playing with your teammates."

The Vols hoped to resume the continuity during a week of practice in Knoxville. After four days off, the team reconvened in Knoxville on Friday evening. This afternoon they will fly to Tampa, where they'll resume practices Sunday.

"It's just getting our chemistry back," Kamara said. "We had some time off, so it's just getting that rhythm back. The quarterbacks throwing with the receivers, getting the meshes back with the quarterbacks and the running backs, the O-line getting back in sync, just little things like that."

In total offense, Tennessee had its second-best performance of the season against Vanderbilt, which held all 11 opponents under their season scoring averages, and the Vols would like to finish the season with another strong showing against a team with a stout defense.

"That's always something as a coach you worry a little bit about with the little bit of a layoff and stuff, but I thought our guys really came back with great energy and great focus," DeBord said. "We've had really good bowl practices.

"I thought we played very well after watching the Vanderbilt tape. I thought we played very well in that game, and then our guys, they've got confidence. They're ready to play another game."

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