Tennesee defense shines

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 10, 2007

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The first-half Tennessee defense looked a lot like the one that lost to No. 8 California. The second-half defense looked like one that might be able to stop defending national champion Florida.

No. 22 Tennessee allowed 16 points and some big plays in the first half, but held the Golden Eagles to merely a field goal after halftime in its 39-19 win Saturday night. The Vols face No. 5 Florida next Saturday in Gainesville.

‘‘As the game went on, I felt myself getting more and more relaxed and comfortable,’’ said linebacker Rico McCoy, who led the defense with nine tackles and an interception. ‘‘When you’re comfortable, you can make plays.’’

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Tennessee (1-1) trailed Southern Miss (1-1) for all but about a minute of the first half, but returned in the second half to force and recover fumbles that set up scoring drives.

Erik Ainge threw a touchdown pass a piece to Rogers and Briscoe and Arian Foster carried the ball 23 times for 125 yards rushing and two touchdowns.

Ainge completed 23 of 36 for 276 yards, getting a lot of help from the developing receivers. Rogers caught seven passes for 112 yards and a touchdown, Taylor added 118 yards on five catches and Briscoe caught a touchdown.

It was the first time two Tennessee receivers have surpassed 100 yards in a game since Marcus Nash and Peerless Price combined for 287 yards receiving in the 1997 Southeastern Conference championship against Auburn.

The Vols made a key conversion on third-and-goal when Ainge connected on a 5-yard touchdown pass to Briscoe with 41 seconds left in the second quarter to send Tennessee into the locker room with a 17-16 lead, which it never lost.

On Southern Miss’ following drive, McCoy intercepted Jeremy Young.

‘‘I think we got a little momentum there and kind of found ourselves,’’ Fulmer said.

Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo forced the ball from Tory Harrison with 9:35 in the third quarter and Jarod Parrish recovered. A 35-yard pass from Ainge to Taylor set up Foster’s 9-yard touchdown five plays later to put the Vols up 27-16.

Harrison fumbled again on a kickoff return with 8:21 in the fourth quarter and kicker Daniel Lincoln, filling in for an injured Britton Colquitt, connected on a 47-yard field goal pushing Tennessee to a 37-19 lead.

Lincoln also hit a 38-yard field goal in the first quarter.

Tennessee was awarded a safety with 5:29 in the fourth after Nevin McKenzie sacked Stephen Reaves, who fumbled the ball and kicked it out of the Southern Miss end zone.

‘‘We had chances to score and we settled for field goals when we needed to get touchdowns,’’ Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower said. ‘‘We didn’t and then we turned the ball over in the second half and gave them a short field too much.’’

Tennessee’s defense allowed a one-play scoring drive when Young threw down the field to Chris Johnson to put the Golden Eagles up 10-7 with 9:11 in the first. The 69-yard touchdown pass was a career-high completion for Young.

Young went 19-of-36 for a career-high 254 yards, surpassing his previous best of 193 yards set against Memphis in 2006. He also ran for 48 yards on nine carries.

Jerod Mayo and Robert Ayres together recorded the Vols’ first sack of the season in the fourth quarter when they nailed Young for a 4-yard loss at the Vols 3-yard line.

The Golden Eagles converted only three of 16 third downs, struggling mostly inside the red zone, and was limited to field goal attempts on five drives.

Justin Estes connected on field goals of 30 yards, 41 yards and 24 yards for Southern Miss, his first career field goals, but missed on a 42-yard attempt. Britt Barefoot also succeeded in his first career field goal, a 51-yarder.

‘‘We got into the red zone a couple of times and didn’t capitalize,’’ Young said. ‘‘That’s a tough thing as a quarterback when you get down there and have long, sustained drives and you can’t get it into the end zone.’’