KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's defense was a disaster last season, statistically the worst in the program's long history.
That was last year.
The Volunteers by no stretch have an elite defense, but the unit has made clear improvements from 2012 and has played better the past two games than it did in the first month of the season.
In 2012, Tennessee surrendered 89 points to Georgia and South Carolina in a pair of high-scoring losses, but the Vols played the banged-up Bulldogs tough before holding South Carolina 102 yards below its season average in Saturday's 23-21 upset victory.
"Defensively I thought we played pretty well all game," first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said after the game. "We've got to get the quarterback runs, but Connor Shaw's a talented, talented quarterback, and we knew that coming in, so we talked about being resilient.
"We've got to improve greatly in our tackling. We didn't tackle very well, and I don't know if that's coming off the work week, the bye week. I don't know, but we've got to get some things improved immediately."
In the season's seventh game, the Vols picked up their 16th and 17th takeaways -- Dontavis Sapp's recovery of a fumbled snap and freshmen cornerback Cam Sutton's interception -- to match last season's total.
After sacking Shaw four times, Tennessee has 12 sacks in 2013, just five short of last year's total.
The Vols' national rank in passing efficiency defense is 60 spots higher, from 87th to 27th, than it was in 2012.
Tennessee is allowing 60 fewer yards per game (411.9) than it did last season (471.4), and against FBS opponents that aren't Oregon, the nation's No. 2 offense that torched Tennessee for 687 yards 59 points, the Vols are allowing only 397 yards and 26 points per game.
"We know we're a good team, and we can play with anybody," said defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, who had six tackles against South Carolina. "We believe every week. Coach Jones does a good job of getting in our heads and telling us we're a great team and we need to put it all together."
Western Kentucky, Oregon and Florida converted more than half of their third-down conversions (25 of 44) against Tennessee's defense in September, but in the last three games, South Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina's combined third-down conversion dropped to 34 percent (15 of 44).
South Carolina converted just 4 of 14 third downs on Saturday, and the Gamecocks needed seven or more yards on nine of those plays.
"We game-planned pretty well. We game-planned throughout practice," linebacker A.J. Johnson said. "Everything we game-planned for, they ran it in the game, so we were ready for it. That was the big key, just executing and getting the job done."
Instead of electing to go for a fourth-and-4 at South Carolina's 49-yard line trailing 21-20 with three minutes left, Jones elected to punt the ball back to South Carolina. His reasoning: Tennessee had its full allotment of timeouts left, Shaw left the game with an injury the previous series and punter Michael Palardy already had put five kicks inside the 20.
"The thinking," Jones said, "was pin them down, play the field position game, force a three-and-out.
"If you go for it on fourth-and-3 or fourth-and-4, that's basically an all-or-nothing play. You're rolling the dice. If you don't get it, they have the ball at midfield. They get a first down or two, the game's over with, so I was going by the percentage game and our kids executed and did a great job."
Tennessee's defenders were grateful for the opportunity, one they might not have gotten in a similar situation a year ago.
"We felt good," defensive tackle Daniel Hood said. "We had played well first quarter, second quarter and the start of the fourth quarter. We knew that we had to do. We knew what plays they were going to run. It's just we had to go out there and execute our defense and force them to make an incredible play, and they weren't able to do it at that time.
"It shows that he knows what we've done throughout the game so far and that he trusts us. As players, we appreciate that, to know that your coach has that much faith in you. To go out there and prove him right means even more."
Tennessee's defense will have to continue to improve with the schedule providing no breaks the next three weeks. Top-ranked Alabama, unbeaten Missouri and 11th-ranked Auburn have a combined record of 20-1, and all three teams boast offense in the top 35 nationally.
"We've just got to continue to build on it," McCullers said. "We have confidence. We've played great, and we're just going to continue to build to work together as a unit and a whole team."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...