TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The numbers would have jumped out at any Southeastern Conference football coach, especially one whose team entered Saturday's Tennessee-Alabama game ranked 13th among 14 league schools in total defense, as well as 13th in passing defense.
"I'm very proud of our defense," said third-year coach Butch Jones as he surveyed the stats following his Volunteers' 19-14 loss to No. 8 Alabama. "Five sacks and 10 TFL's (tackles for losses). I thought our team showed some grit, some determination and some resiliency on the road against a quality opponent."
The grit and determination has been there all year — home or away — with the Vols' physical and mental toughness evident in the fact that their four losses have come by a combined 17 points.
But until late Saturday afternoon inside Bryant-Denny Stadium, that determination hadn't shown many positive results this season on defense. The Vols entered the game giving up an average of nearly 26 points and 419 yards per game.
Against the Crimson Tide, the Vols held the winners to 364 yards (nearly 70 yards below their average), and 71 of those came on Alabama's game-winning drive.
"We communicated well," UT senior defensive back Brian Randolph said. "We flew to the ball. We had some missed tackles, but we had each other's back when we did. (If) they broke one tackle, two other guys were there to make the next tackle."
Added linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin: "We still didn't tackle well enough, but overall we played a great game. At the end, we've just to learn to make that extra play. We've always had it in us. We've just got to keep grinding and get a win next week against Kentucky."
The extra plays were everywhere for the Tide. Alabama held the football for more than 10 minutes longer than the Vols, 35:39 to 24:21. That figure was particularly troublesome in the final half, when Alabama had a time of possession of 20:86, compared to just 8:34 for UT.
Yet that could also be seen as a positive, because the Vols twice limited 12-play Alabama drives to field goals, including the third quarter's opening possession, which ended at the UT 2.
"That goal-line stand is definitely a positive," Randolph said. "That's definitely something we can build on."
Added Jones: "There are no moral victories at the University of Tennessee."
But there are positives, even following a ninth straight loss to the Tide.
"From previous years, it feels a lot better," Randolph said. "We showed we can compete with them. We just have to finish.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.