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Front Page - Friday, November 24, 2017

Pride only thing at stake in UT-Vanderbilt game

Defensive end Kyle Phillips, center, needs a win to secure bragging rights with his mother, a Vanderbilt graduate and former Commodore basketball player. - Jerry Denham

Tennessee’s football team and interim head coach Brady Hoke will try to avoid a historically bad season Saturday.

If the Vols (4-7, 0-7 SEC) lose to Vanderbilt (4-7, 0-7), it would be the first team in program history to lose eight games and go winless in the conference. Kickoff is 4 p.m. EST at Neyland Stadium (TV: SEC Network).

It’s also the first time since 2005 that both Tennessee and Vanderbilt won’t be in a bowl game.

“It hurts,” UT senior linebacker Colton Jumper said after last Saturday’s 30-10 loss to LSU at Neyland Stadium. “We wanted to get that bowl game. We really wanted to finish the season out right, so that hurts. But you’ve got to look past it because we’re playing Vanderbilt on Saturday, and that’s the biggest thing we’re looking at.”

Tennessee’s stronghold in the series against Vanderbilt has been lost of late.

The Vols won 22 consecutive games over the Commodores from 1983-2004 and have won 31 of their last 35 in the series. However, Vanderbilt has won three of the last five against UT, including a 45-34 win last year in Nashville.

“That loss last year hurt, so we’re definitely going to have motivation for them,” Jumper added.

So will fifth-year senior defensive tackle Kendal Vickers.

“We know how we felt after the game last year (at Vanderbilt), and we don’t want that feeling again,” Vickers explained.

Hoke made his debut as interim coach against LSU. Tennessee fired former head coach Butch Jones on Nov. 12, a day after the Vols lost at Missouri, 50-17.

As rumors about Tennessee’s next coach swirled, the Vols did their best to prepare for then No. 20-ranked LSU.

“Yeah, it was tough,” Jumper acknowledged. “Anytime you lose somebody, lose your head coach, it’s going to be tough. But I mean, we’ve got to bounce back. That’s life. You’ve got to come back, head forward.”

Junior defensive end Kyle Phillips won’t have trouble getting motivated for the season finale. Phillips played at Hillsboro High in Nashville, and his mother, Teresa Phillips, is the athletics director at Tennessee State. She is a Vanderbilt graduate and played varsity basketball while there.

“It is definitely a state rivalry,” Phillips said. “We know every game’s going to be competitive. They’re going to bring it. We’re going to bring it. It should be a great game. And I need bragging rights, because my mom went to Vandy.”

Vanderbilt is coming off a 45-17 loss to Missouri last Saturday in Nashville. The Commodores’ non-conference victories are against Middle Tennessee State University, Alabama A&M, Kansas State, and Western Kentucky. They’ve lost to Kentucky and Missouri since the 31-17 win over Western Kentucky on Nov. 4.

Tennessee couldn’t overcome some blunders last Saturday – including two lost fumbles on punt returns resulting in 10 LSU points – on a night when heavy winds and rains rolled through Knoxville.

But there was no shortage of energy on UT’s sideline.

“I just think Coach Hoke has definitely come with a great mindset this week for us, and I think we all just bought into what he’s been preaching to us,” Phillips pointed out.

“We’ve been talking about playing for our seniors. We had two more opportunities, and I think that was just really important, that we really care about each other on the team and the seniors.

“They’ve been here four or five years and they’ve worked their butts off, and we want to end the season on a good note.”

The Vols have one more chance. A victory over Vanderbilt would match Tennessee’s consecutive 1-7 SEC records in 2011 and 2012 under Derek Dooley, who was fired after the 2012 season.

Then the Butch Jones era began. Now it’s over, and another coaching era soon begins.

Tennessee fans must settle for getting a new coach and seeing how recruiting unfolds this bowl season.

Matchups to watch

Shurmur vs. Vols’ pass defense

Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur torched UT’s defense for 416 yards and two touchdowns on 21-of-34 passing last year.

The 6-foot-4, 227-pound junior was 28-of-52 passing for 348 yards last Saturday against Missouri, and his only TD pass tied the single-season school record of 22 set by Whit Taylor in 1982. Shurmur was tied with Jay Cutler (2005) for second going into the Missouri game.

Shurmur is fifth on Vanderbilt’s career passing yards list (5,452) and trails Kurt Page (6,233 yards from 1981-84), Taylor (6,307 in 1979-82), Greg Zolman (7,981 from 1998-01), and Cutler (8,697 from 2002-05).

This season Shurmur has thrown for 2,540 yards with 22 touchdowns and 10 interception. He’s completing 57.3 percent of his passes.

Vanderbilt was fourth in the SEC and 67th nationally in passing offense (229.2 yards per game) going into last Saturday’s game, while Tennessee led the SEC and was fifth nationally in passing defense (157.6).

LSU’s Danny Etling completed 11-of-15 passes for 81 yards without a touchdown or interception in the monsoon-like conditions last Saturday.

Vandy rush vs. UT rush defense

Which is worse: Vanderbilt’s rushing attack or Tennessee’s rushing defense?

The Commodores were last in the SEC and 126th among FBS teams in rushing offense (98.9 yards per game) going into last Saturday’s game. Tennessee was last in the SEC and 126th nationally in rushing defense (256.9 yards allowed per game) before the LSU game.

Vanderbilt was held to 51 rushing yards last Saturday, while the Vols gave up 200 rushing yards to LSU.

Senior Ralph Webb holds numerous Vanderbilt rushing records – including career yards and career attempts – but has been limited to 668 yards and eight TD runs this season. Webb, who was on the coaches’ preseason All-SEC team, rushed for 55 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries (2.9-yard average) against Missouri.

In last year’s win over Tennessee, Webb rushed for 114 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.

UT backs vs. Vandy rush defense

UT junior John Kelly is a top-shelf SEC running back on a lower-tier rushing team, and he’ll be matched Saturday against one of the worst run defenses in the league.

The Vols were 11th in the SEC and 101st in the nation in rushing yards per game (131.6) prior to Saturday’s game.

Kelly rushed for 47 yards on 25 carries (1.9-yard average) against LSU. UT netted 38 rushing yards on 34 attempts against the Tigers for a 1.1-yard average.

Vanderbilt was giving up 213.6 rushing yards per game before last Saturday’s game – 12th in the SEC and 115th nationally – and gave up 191 rushing yards against Missouri, whose Drew Lock threw for 235 yards and three touchdowns on 10-of-25 passing.


UT injuries

Tennessee’s is on record pace for injuries in a season – if there is such a record – with 25 starters or key players missing at least one start this season. Nine starters or key players and six backups are out for the season with injuries.

The Vols had about 21 scholarship players out for the Nov. 4 win over Southern Miss.

Four starters were questionable for the LSU game: offensive linemen Marcus Tatum, Drew Richmond, and Brett Kendrick and wide receiver Marquez Callaway. Of those, only Callaway played (he had the two muffed fumbles, and also a 46-yard TD catch from Jarrett Guarantano).

Backup quarterback Will McBride wasn’t in uniform due to an injury sustained at Missouri.

By the end of the LSU game, four more UT starters left with injuries: Callaway, center Jashon Robertson, linebacker Daniel Bituli and defensive end Jonathan Kongbo.

Wolf watch

UT senior tight end Ethan Wolf had two catches for 7 yards against LSU and now has 89 catches for his career, good for second place in school history.

Barring a monster game against Vanderbilt, Wolf won’t catch Reggie Harper’s record of 98 catches by a tight end from 1977-80.

Harper tops UT’s list for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,141, with Mychal Rivera (2010-12) next with 1,018 yards and Wolf third with 958. Wolf surpassed Luke Stocker (956 receiving yards from 2007-10) in the LSU game.

Speedy receiver

Tennessee junior Malik Elion saw his first action against LSU and caught one pass for 10 yards.

Elion is a 5-foot-7 sprinter for Tennessee’s track and field team. He practices with UT’s football team as a walk-on, but wasn’t on the Vols’ list of 104 players on the media flip card for the LSU game.

Elion, who graduated from Houston High in Germantown, has been on the roster on UT’s official website for most of the season, according to UT officials.

If Tennessee has a No. 34 on the field against Vanderbilt, he’s Elion, not junior linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. Kirkland, who is No. 34 on the roster, is another Vol out for the season due to injury.

TFL team

Vanderbilt entered the Missouri game third in the SEC in tackles for loss per game (6.7) behind Missouri (7.7) and Texas A&M (7.4).

The Commodores were averaging 10 tackles for loss in their four victories going into last Saturday’s game, and were averaging 4.5 in their six losses. They had three tackles for loss against Missouri.

Junior outside linebacker Charles White was seventh in the SEC with 9.5 tackles for loss, but didn’t have a sack against Missouri.

Go-to guy

Senior wide receiver Trent Sherfield has been Shurmur’s go-to receiver this season with 18 catches on third downs – 15 of those resulting in first downs going into last Saturday’s game.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.