Tennessee running back Rajion Neal (20) carries against Akron during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Michael Patrick)
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (re.lease) -- The first two months of the Tennessee football team's regular-season schedule are done and gone and the Vols have compiled a 3-5 record.
The team, like it has done all season, is not looking back, but is instead looking forward to November, a clean slate and a chance to win the rest of its games and return to the bowl scene.
"The way I see it is we are 0-0 right now," sophomore offensive lineman Antonio Richardson said. "Coach said that everybody always remembers what you can do in November. I think that is true, we just have to win out."
That process starts with a win on Saturday.
"You guys heard me talk a little bit about a `second season' and I think it is all pretty clear that the legacy of this team and the character of this team is going to be defined by how we compete these last four games,” Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley said. “It is important to know that it's not four games because we can't go 4-0 without going 1-0. I told the players that I don't want to even talk about 4-0 because we have to go 1-0. We have to get a win and we haven't done that in a while.”
The month of October has historically been tough for the Vols as their schedule typically pits them against top-10 teams week-in and week-out.
Although the team didn't achieve the success it looked for, November will begin that `second season' that Dooley discussed.
"We just take every game, one game at a time," senior linebacker Herman Lathers said. "Right now our focus is on Troy and not the rest of the season. Dooley said it's our second season, so at the start of the second season, you have to go 1-0 so all of our focus is on Troy."
The team continues to have a positive attitude and came out to practice on Monday fired up, despite the biting cold that has hit the Knoxville area.
"I think that everybody has a really good mental approach right now," Richardson said. "We know what we have to do. Like I have been telling you guys, it is week-by-week and just coming in here with the leadership with guys like Herman [Lathers], me and all these other guys on defense and offense, guys like Dallas just saying `we do what we have to do, just hone in and win these four games in November.'"
The four wins would not only boost the Vols’ record over .500, but would also help the team gain some of its confidence back.
"I think it is really important because if we win out I think we will get our swagger back," Richardson said. "If we are able to go 7-5 and get to a bowl game I think that will get our swagger back and get us ready to go into this offseason and prepare for the next year."
Senior tight end Mychal Rivera is confident that UT’s best football is still ahead.
"We are optimistic,” Rivera said. “We have the four games left and I think we are going to come out and handle it."
EYES ON TROY
Tennessee is looking to end its four-game losing streak when Troy comes to Neyland Stadium this Saturday for a noon showdown on FSN.
The Trojans have a high-powered offense that is averaging 460 yards per game and has quickly garnered the attention of the Vols.
"They are real explosive and elusive," sophomore linebacker Curt Maggitt said. "There are a lot of great players all-around. It is going to be a challenge, it is not going to be a walk in the park. We are preparing well and trying to correct our mistakes and limit big plays, it is where we have been struggling all year. With a team like this if you don't limit the big plays it can come back and haunt you."
The Trojans lead the Sun Belt and rank 22nd in the nation in passing offense with 292.4 yards per game through the air. Tennessee, meanwhile, ranks 103rd in the nation in passing yardage defense, giving up 272 yards per game.
Part of the Orange and White’s game plan will be to limit the number of plays the Trojans get on offense.
"They're averaging 90 plays a game right now," senior linebacker Herman Lathers said. "As an up-tempo offense, they'll try and spread you out so we have to get in line to get our short calls in. We're going to narrow it down this week and be able to play fast."
Troy head coach Larry Blakeney, now in his 22nd year guiding the Trojans, has led his team to at least 24 points in seven of eight games this season. Troy has racked up at least 374 yards of total offense in each game, including 572 against SEC foe Mississippi State in a 30-24 loss on Sept. 15.
"I know they have a really good offense," senior fullback Ben Bartholomew said. "I think they're a good team that can expose people if they don't come to play. Yes, we've seen that film when we were preparing for Mississippi State, so we know they're a team that can definitely make some plays."
The Vols are not looking for a shootout, but are aware they can battle with the best of them in terms of offense.
"I hope it doesn't come to be a shootout, but [the offense] knows we can put the yards up, so we'll just have to go toe-to-toe," senior lineman Dallas Thomas said. "We believe in our defense to hold them, but if it comes down to it, we can do it. I never lost faith in our defense. I know things have gotten tough, but I know they can pull us through. We (the offense and defense) have faith in each other and it keeps us together."
MAKING IT PERSONAL
Sophomore offensive lineman Antonio Richardson had one of the toughest tests of his short Tennessee career Saturday against one of the top defensive linemen in the country, Jadeveon Clowney.
Richardson headed into the game with the mentality that it was personal, and that mentality translated into one of the best games he has played in a UT uniform.
"The thing was I made it personal last week and a few hours before the game there were some things said on social media that were brought to my attention so that got me a little hot and it became more personal," said Richardson.
"There was a tweet that said `Can't wait to hang out with UT's quarterback,'" continued Richardson. "That is an insult to me. There was a picture of our `I give my all for Tennessee today' and they switched up the words so I didn't like that."
Those remarks prior to the game pushed Richardson to another level.
"It was really physical and we were jawing the whole time," said Richardson. "I am not going to repeat what was said. It got a little personal but at the end of the day I think he respected me as a player and I respected him as a player. That is all that matters.
"I said the week before that it was going to be a good challenge for us and for me and I feel like we stepped up to the challenge."
Richardson kept that momentum going for three-and-a-half quarters, and then, while the Vols were driving, Clowney made his way past Richardson for the first time all game and forced a game-changing fumble.
"He hit me with an inside head fake and then he went back outside," explained Richardson. "It was the same move that he had been hitting me with all day and for some reason I just bit on it and I'm trying to get it out of my head and let it go, but when you don't give up a sack all season and you give up one to the best defensive end in the country. You just have to personalize it and wait for next year."
Richardson's head coach Derek Dooley felt for the offensive lineman after the game.
"I told my wife after the game, you talk about life not being fair, but it is life," said Dooley. "This kid has incredible character, incredible competitive character and he represents this program so well. You guys don't know this, but he was hurt the whole week. We were really worried he wasn't going to play because of his knee. He didn't practice hardly at all Monday and Tuesday and our history has been that we are in trouble if a guy doesn't practice and he is going against [Jadeveon] Clowney, but Tiny could not wait to go prove he can go block this guy.
"To watch how he competed the whole game, it just breaks your heart that the guy made an incredible play that last play and it happens to be the one that they are going to show on ESPN," continued Dooley. "I told Antonio that we would have never had 35 points on the board at all, we would have gotten blown out of the park, if it wasn't for him and I believe that. That is one of the things that is going to make him the special player that he has the ability to be is how he puts that on himself, but we would have never even been in the game if Antonio had not performed the way he had."
Richardson and Clowney were able to talk at the end of the game, and Tiny was pleased by the fact that Clowney thought he was a senior.
"I got to shake his hand and tell him good game," said Richardson. "We had fun, but I can't wait until next year. He said, `You're a senior aren't you?' and I told him I was in his class. He just said good game and I think the mutual respect was there."
SOPHOMORE OL ANTONIO RICHARDSON
(On what his teammates told him after the game)
“They told me that I handled him the whole game and won the one-on-one battle. That he is a great player and is going to make great plays every now and then so just brush it off.”
(On getting over giving up that sack)
“I am still trying to get over it a little bit, everyone keeps telling me it is not my fault but I feel like if I wouldn’t have given up that sack we would have scored and won the game. Everyone is saying that you hung in the whole game, it is not your fault and we could have done a lot of stuff different. Putting that pressure on myself I think is going to make me a better player in the long run.”
(On how the line dominated against SC)
“We watched the film and saw how much we dominated, and the mistakes that we could have corrected, we are just going to correct them and move on.”
(On how cold it was at practice Monday)
“I don’t need any thermals. I was telling the offensive linemen that had them on that they were soft.”
RS SENIOR LB HERMAN LATHERS
(On personal game against South Carolina)
“I thought I played well; my best career game here so far. I have to build on it and keep a competitive spirit around this team.”
(On downfall of 2011 season)
“I can’t pinpoint an exact moment, but you knew there were times that players didn’t believe in the coaches, coaches didn’t believe in the players, and when you have that it’s a recipe for disaster, so that’s what happened. I’m pretty sure it’s not going to happen this season. We have a real close bunch. Players believe in the coaches, coaches believe in the players. We know what we’re doing wrong and we know where we have to correct, so we’re just going out to the best of our ability to get better every day.”
(On the maturation of the team)
“It is. It’s a different mindset that we approached in the offseason: hold each other accountable, team bonding experiences, us being around each other and being together. We didn’t want what happened last year, happen this year. It’s big on leadership this year and leading by example, pulling each other together.”
(On senior leadership)
“We never really thought about picking it up. We’re just trying to be consistent all year as far as the seniors go, but we know we have a bowl game to play for and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re just trying to motivate this team. Things are not going our way right now as we want them, but we know where the mistakes come in and why they’re not going our way. Our main job is to encourage those guys and get them to eliminate the big plays and eliminate the busting and you’ll be right where you want to be.”
RS SENIOR OL DALLAS THOMAS
(On Tiny Richardson)
“He played a real good game against someone that was real good. You can’t always go into a game thinking that you’re going to dominate a real good player. He’s going to get you and you’re going to get him. You just have to hope you get him more than he gets you.”
RS SENIOR FB BEN BARTHOLOMEW
(On the last offensive play against South Carolina)
“It was a rough thing. I think everyone on the sideline believed we were going to win. We were driving down and everything looked good. Some things just don’t go your way and that’s what happens, but we’re focused and regrouped and I think we’re going to finish the season off real well.”
(On responding to negativity)
“We’ve been finishing games and I think everyone’s been giving really good effort. We’re just focused on our team and the guys on the team. Everyone else, we hear about it, but we just kind of put it out of our mind and it doesn’t affect us.”
(On finishing out games)
“It’s really hard to lose these close games, but I think we make a lot of mistakes where we wouldn’t even be in that situation. We would be ahead at the end of the game. So, I think that’s what we’re trying to capitalize on and get in that position.”
(On closing out the season)
“We really are. I was going up to all the seniors before the game. You don’t get this opportunity many times. It’s a real honor and a privilege to be out there on the field, and we just have to play our heart out every time.”
SOPHOMORE LB CURT MAGGITT
(On winning the upcoming games)
“Very important. They saying goes they remember what you do in November so we are doing our best to take it one game at a time. Like coach said this is part two. It is like the playoffs for us, we are trying to win out.”
(On today’s cold practice)
“A lot of guys came up with a lot of energy for some reason and that warmed everybody up.”
(On the defense)
“I feel like we have been getting better but the stats don’t show it. Like coach said we had almost 80 plays in the game, we played 65 of them very well, it was those 15 plays. It is not that we aren’t playing well, it is just small things like technique, communication, and adjusting. We just have to correct those things if we want to become a better defense.”
(On the team’s mentality)
“The emotion around here is pretty good. We know what we are capable of; we know the five games we have lost don’t define our team. We know what we are capable of we just haven’t showed it really.”