KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There’s a line from an episode of The Andy Griffith Show when Goober, the brutish mechanic, shakes his head and says, “Speed, speed, speed. That all he ever thinks about.”
Goober was deriding Andy’s driving, but he might as well have been describing the uptempo offenses at this weekend’s historic ‘Battle at Bristol.’
Under new head coach Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech ran 89 plays in its opening win over Liberty. Tennessee’s tempo offense was slowed by self-inflicted mistakes and Appalachian State’s own clock-milking, but several Volunteers defenders believe they’re well prepared for a completely different challenge on Saturday.
“Our ‘Sonic’ period is fast,” said senior defensive end LaTroy Lewis, explaining that practicing against Josh Dobbs & Co. is invaluable for an opponent like Va. Tech.
“It’s good for our offense because they like to go fast, and for us because we pride ourselves on being a no-huddle, up-tempo defense, so any time we see a fast offense, we kind of pride ourselves on saying, ‘Ok, you’re going to go fast? We’re going to get lined up just as fast, if for faster. I’ve seen our offense go fast.
“I mean fast.”
While the Mountaineers controlled Thursday’s opener with pre-snap motion and clock management, the Hokies play at a frenetic pace under Fuente.
Tennessee knows the key to slowing down a fast-paced attack is winning on first down or forcing negative plays. Ole Miss was humming against Florida State on Monday night until the Seminoles ratcheted up the pressure and started forcing turnovers.
Lewis says conditioning won’t be an issue and the ‘Orange Swarm’ is focusing on forcing Va. Tech quarterback Jerod Evans into mistakes with pressure.
“We always talk about slowing down a tempo offense with big plays, tackles for losses,” Lewis said.
“Any negative yardage plays is a good way to stop a fast offense.”
The Volunteers have watched film on Fuente’s explosive offenses dating back to Memphis and TCU. Star linebacker Darrin Kirkland expects the Hokies to run “at least 90 to 100 plays, so we just have to prepare for all the aspects of their game.”
Tennessee isn’t leaving Bristol with a win if its defense is on the field for 90-plus plays on Saturday. The Volunteers have played more 87 snaps (Oklahoma in 2015) once since 2008, racking up 99 plays in a 55-48 shootout win over Troy in 2012.
Speed is the theme this week, but Tennessee hopes its offense is the one doing the racing.
Jesse Simonton covers Tennessee football and recruiting for SECCountry.com