Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson (45) sends Austin Peay wide receiver Rashaan Coleman (1) to the ground during the first half Saturday night in Knoxville. (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel)
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee understands it will take more than a 45-0 shutout of Austin Peay to prove that its defense has regained respectability.
The memories of last football season are too fresh.
Tennessee's defense also delivered a strong performance in last year's season opener, producing four interceptions and a safety in a 35-21 victory over North Carolina State. The Volunteers went on to give up more points per game that season than any UT defense since 1893.
So even though the defense took a clear step forward Saturday, the Vols realize they still have room to improve.
"We've just got to be very critical of ourselves when we come in and watch film," linebacker Dontavis Sapp said. "We got a shutout, but there are always things you can work on and things you can fix. It's always that way because, you know, we didn't give up zero yards. There's always something you can get better at."
Before Saturday, Tennessee's last shutout was a 27-0 victory over Middle Tennessee on Nov. 5, 2011. One week later, the Vols lost 49-7 to an Arkansas team coached by Bobby Petrino. They'll hope to have more success Saturday when they again follow a shutout by facing Petrino, now the coach at Western Kentucky.
Petrino, regarded as one of college football's top offensive minds, led the Hilltoppers to a 35-26 victory over Kentucky in his Western Kentucky debut.
"We've known for a while that they were going to be a really good team," UT nose tackle Daniel Hood said. "Last time we played that coach, he beat us pretty bad down in Arkansas. So we owe him a good one."
The week after the Western Kentucky game, Tennessee travels to No. 3 Oregon, which gained a school-record 772 yards Saturday in a 66-3 blowout of Nicholls.
Although the schedule is about to get much tougher, UT's defense still has reason for optimism.
The Vols said throughout the offseason that they would benefit from the move back to a 4-3 defensive scheme after a disastrous experiment with the 3-4 last year under former coordinator Sal Sunseri. Players believe the new system is simpler and helps them play faster.
Austin Peay reached Tennessee territory only twice Saturday and was held scoreless for the first time since a 54-0 loss to Drake on Sept. 24, 2005. That's an encouraging sign for UT, which struggled to put away heavy underdogs last season because of its defensive deficiencies. The Vols were tied at halftime with Akron before pulling away for a 47-26 win, and they gave up 721 yards — the most ever by a Tennessee opponent — in a 55-48 victory over Troy.
"It's nice to bounce back from what we had done last year and actually play a good defensive game where we held someone and shut them out and not have another Akron situation," Hood said.
Tennessee did just fine while giving freshman cornerbacks Cameron Sutton and Malik Foreman major roles. Sutton cracked the starting lineup in his Vols debut. Foreman became the first Tennessee freshman to intercept a pass in a season opener since Dwayne Goodrich in 1996.
Those cornerbacks and the rest of the defense weren't tested very much against Austin Peay. UT coach Butch Jones praised the way his defense worked during the offseason, but he's eager to see how these guys produce in tougher circumstances.
"What is going to happen and how are we going to respond when we give up a touchdown?" Jones said. "That is the mark of a great defense: They forget easily and move on."
Tennessee's defense didn't face much adversity Saturday. Western Kentucky and Oregon should provide plenty of it the next two weeks.
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