Spurred on by the play of running back Gerald Riggs Jr., the Volunteers torched Coach Gene Chizik's crew for two rushing touchdowns. One went for 80 yards, the longest run Auburn had given up this season. For the game Tennessee had 228 rushing yards and left Chizik looking for answers following the win.
"It was just bad defense," Chizik says of the third quarter against Tennessee. "That's the only way I can put it. The defense played bad from the front to the back. I thought they lost focus and they didn't play very disciplined football. It was just one of those deals, for whatever reason, we lost focus in that third quarter. We hadn't done that all year. We went back and looked at it and we're going to get those problems fixed."
Much of the criticism from the SEC title game was leveled at sophomore safety Will Herring for his missed tackle on the long TD run. While Herring wasn't in the right place for the play, the bigger problem for the Tigers was the loss of starting defensive end Doug Langenfeld and linebacker Antarrious Williams for the game. Chizik says that no one person is to blame for Auburn's problems against Tennessee.
"I hate to point out one guy because somebody else always has to come on and make a tackle," Chizik says. "Will was one of the guys that was wrong. He certainly wasn't the only one that wasn't good on those plays. I would never single a guy out because there are 10 others out there that had a chance to do something on a play. Collectively, as a defense, we just played pretty brutal football for a quarter."
Chizik hugs Junior Rosegreen following his four interceptions against Tennessee earlier this year.
The difference in Auburn and other teams this season was the ability to make adjustments, whether it be early in games or after the half. That was the case against the Vols as the Tigers came back to play a strong fourth quarter on defense and protect their first SEC title in 15 years. Chizik says that the mark of a team is how it responds to the hard times when things don't go right.
"You're not always going to win games pretty and that's certainly the ugliest that we've played," Chizik says. "You have to try to find some light at the end of the tunnel and the light was that we were able to regroup and play when it counted and come back and get a couple of stops. That's kind of what we've been doing all year. There has been spurts this year where we've played below average. Certainly not as below average as we did that night, but they've always been able to rebound and recover. They did that when the chips were down and we needed some good things to happen."
Auburn will need its best game on defense when it faces the hot Virginia Tech Hokies and quarterback Bryan Randall on Jan. 3 in the Nokia Sugar Bowl. The ACC Offensive Player of the Year, Randall brings the ability to both run and pass and could create major problems for the Tigers. Chizik says that the multiple Hokie offense is a tough one to defend when you factor in the type of athletes that Virginia Tech has assembled.
"They're an unbelievable football team," Chizik says of the Hokies. "They should be 11-0. For all intents and purposes, they should be 11-0. They've won eight straight and you can see why. You can see them just get better and better. They've got a young team and they got better and better as the year went. Randall was kind of like Jason Campbell. He got better and better as the year went and really is the spark behind everything on the offense.
"He's certainly not the only good player they've got. They've got very good running backs and their offensive line is so physical. If there is any team in the ACC that fits in the SEC mold of aggressive, hard nosed, knock you off the football type of offense and defense then Virginia Tech fits that bill. This is going to be a knock-down, drag-out type of game. They are really good."
The bowl game will be the last for a group of seniors who have given everything to make this defense one of the best in the nation for the past two seasons. Headlining the group are defensive backs Carlos Rogers and Junior Rosegreen, both of whom earned All-American honors. Rogers added the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back.
Chizik says that watching those seniors play football they way they have this season has been a special thing to see and something he's going to miss. "I feel like this about it," Chizik says. "Great things can happen to individuals when your team has done well.
"I'm very happy and excited for Carlos Rogers and all the other guys that have gotten a lot of postseason awards," Chizik says. "All those things become available to you when you have a good team. I think that kind of epitomizes the year. We talked in the beginning about having a great team doesn't necessarily mean you have the best players, but if you have a great team in the end I think the players get recognized for that.
"When you're unselfish and nobody cares who gets any of the credit, that's when you can have a good football team. When that happens the Carlos Rogers and Junior Rosegreens and Travis Williams and Stanley McClovers all get recognized for what they did within the team. That's what I'm happy about. Everything they did was within the core of what we asked them to do as a team. For those reasons I couldn't be more happy for those guys."