October 18, 2008

Easy win allows Fulmer, Vols to smile

Phillip Fulmer emerged from behind a curtain, grabbed a seat at the microphone-filled table inside the sparkling new press room beneath Neyland Stadium and … smiled.

Such was the performance for Tennessee Saturday night in a runaway 34-3 win over Mississippi State that Fulmer smiled for what seemed like the first time all season.

The Vols' embattled head coach even felt comfortable enough to crack a joke … and perhaps a warning shot.

Before his first press conference this season following an SEC win began, Tennessee's coach -- who picked up career win No. 150 in the evening -- barked a message open to interpretation.

"Not dead yet," Fulmer said.

And later, when asked about the sublime Eric Berry, who provided the initial breathing room in the victory with his 72-yard interception return into the end zone and SEC's record books, Fulmer jokingly summed up Berry's dominance with one word.

"Coaching," he cracked.

Fulmer wasn't serious, of course, and went on to praise Berry as one of the singular players around which he has ever been. No one can coach the innate awareness that the sophomore from Fairburn, Ga., possesses, the ability to see open lanes on the field as if he's watching a movie trailer for a film still months from release. Berry knows the plot before everyone else.

And on this night, the plot was the most rewarding this season for the Vols, who actually notched a win in which everyone "could feel good about," as someone so aptly described it to me.

Certainly, Tennessee was far from perfect. It ran the ball better -- not dominantly -- in amassing 139 net yards on 39 attempts. While boasting just a 3.6 yard-per-carry average, the Vols might as well have run the Boston Marathon -- or Knoxville's lesser version -- after mustering an embarrassing 1 yard on 15 tries in last week's 26-14 loss at Georgia.

Defensively, with coordinator John Chavis perched above the field for the first time in nearly seven years, the Vols limited State's anemic offense to just 189 total yards on 60 plays -- only 106 of which came over the final three quarters.

Plus, Tennessee got blowout-inducing interception returns for touchdowns from both Berry and Demetrice Morley as part of its three-turnover evening.

On special teams, sophomore kicker Daniel Lincoln made two of three field goals and Dennis Rogan added a key 40-yard kickoff return.

"We won a football game," first-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said. "Our defense played super, and we made some progress on offense. I think we started to find an identity tonight that I thought we had found three weeks ago. We have to be able to run the football. We have a veteran offensive line, three good tailbacks, a bunch of tight ends and a fullback who's playing well. Our running has to set up our throwing."

Players, to a man, credited the Vols' coaching staff with setting up this win through a week of physically demanding practices. Perhaps Demonte Bolden chasing down savvy quarterback Nick Stephens this week in practice was more a blessing than anyone could have known.
Because against a State team that hopes to stagger opponents with its physical punch up front, the Vols instead punched back, knocking the Bulldogs into submission with a 12-play, 51-yard drive that culminated in Lennon Creer's touchdown in the game's waning moments.

"It felt good, the coaches came to practice this week with that mentality that we're going to stick together and believe and we took that challenge as a team," said senior cornerback DeAngelo Willingham, who ushered the Vols' three-interception fourth quarter with a pick near midfield. "We didn't listen to nothing outside, kept our focus and practiced hard.

"(The physical week of practice) definitely helped us because we knew coming into this game that Mississippi State was a physical team. All the preparation that the coaches put together for us, that really helped us."

It helped the Vols on the field for four quarters Saturday night.

And then, inside a locker room that featured a rousing version of "Rocky Top," all that physical work helped them remember what it was like to smile again after a game.

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