Perhaps every positive gain should be celebrated when No. 19 Tennessee and Texas A&M collide Saturday afternoon (3:30 on CBS) inside Neyland Stadium.
Though Volunteers football coach Josh Heupel and Aggies counterpart Jimbo Fisher are respected for their offensive backgrounds, their defenses this season have been racking up some staggering numbers. In fact, if their averages hold this weekend, Tennessee and Texas A&M will combine for 19 lost-yardage stops.
"They've had four straight weeks of like five-plus sacks," Heupel said Wednesday. "They have gotten after the quarterback, and they do that through schemes and pressures, but a lot of it is with their front four. They do it not just on third downs but on normal downs, too. Those guys are physically gifted who bend well and use their hands well.
"It's really important in this one that you protect the quarterback extremely well and that you give him a chance to get the ball out, because you watch their games, and there are a lot of second-and-longs and third-and-longs. Those are situations you don't want to be in against this front."
Texas A&M, which sacked KJ Jefferson of Arkansas and Jalen Milroe of Alabama a combined 13 times the past two weekends, leads all Bowl Subdivision teams with 26 sacks. Yet Tennessee has one less game played to this point, and the 4.4 sacks per game by the Vols leads all Power Five programs, with the Aggies close behind at 4.33 a contest.
Fisher laughed Wednesday at the thought of 19 lost-yardage stops this weekend — the Aggies and Vols are racking up 9.5 and 9.4 per game, respectively — but he knows there could be a bunch.
"Usually your front people have to be difference makers, guys who can change the game, and both sides have those guys," Fisher said. "Their front is very good at penetrating. They get up the field. Their tackles get off the ball. Their ends rush, and it has to start there. Then their linebackers are active, and they're the second-leading guys who make them.
"From that aspect, the two teams are very similar with the types of players and the things that are going on."
Junior linebacker Edgerrin Cooper leads the Aggies with 12 tackles for loss and six sacks, while sophomore defensive lineman Walter Nolen ranks second with 7.5 tackles for loss that include four sacks. Nolen is a 6-foot-4, 290-pound former five-star signee out of Powell High School just north of Knoxville.
Tennessee's defensive charges have been led by senior linebacker Aaron Beasley, who has 8.5 tackles for loss and two sacks, and redshirt freshman edge rusher James Pearce Jr., whose 10 tackles this season contain seven for loss, including five sacks.
The Vols are on pace to easily finish among the nation's top 15 teams in tackles for loss for a third straight season, but their sack numbers have jumped significantly from the 2.39 per game last year.
"I think it's the recruitment of some of our defensive linemen, adding length and athleticism, and the development of those guys as well as the guys who have been here on this roster the entire time," Heupel said. "It's them understanding the scheme we're playing so that they're doing the right things at the right times. That can be twist games or when you're trying to apply pressure with your front four. We've been better getting to the quarterback with a four-man rush, which changes the coverages you're able to play on the back end.
"It all plays off of each other. Our secondary is doing a better job of playing press man, and some of our bracket coverages and zone drops are forcing the quarterback to hold on to it and not get it out of his hands when he wants to based on the rush up front. It's really all 11 guys continuing to grow and play their role."
Pearce's five sacks are followed by four from senior edge rusher Tyler Baron, and they're both on pace to top the seven compiled last season by Byron Young, who became a third-round pick of the Los Angeles Rams.
"Obviously every year you figure out areas in which you could be better, and obviously that was an area we needed to improve on," Vols defensive coordinator Tim Banks said this week when asked about pressure up front. "We always feel confident that the things we work on we'll see some returns on. Those guys have worked extremely hard, and you're obviously seeing the fruits of their labor."
Keenan Pili, the sixth-year senior linebacker transfer from Brigham Young, suffered an upper-body injury in the opening win over Virginia in Nashville. Heupel said Pili would be out "multiple weeks" and was asked Wednesday whether the 6-3, 240-pounder could return to action by the end of this month.
"We'll see where we are at here week by week," Heupel said. "He's not ready to go in this one. Keenan has been a special leader even while he is out, and he is fighting his butt off to get back as soon as possible.
"Obviously we feel like he's a difference maker."
Fisher said Monday that his defensive backs would have to get used to playing the ball in the air longer due to the arm strength of Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III.
He was asked Wednesday whether that can be simulated in practice.
"You can build drills in to where you can make them run farther," Fisher said. "You may have a quarterback throwing to a guy who has already run 20 yards down the field and then throw it 40 to where he runs 60.
"Not many guys can throw it that far, so it's very tough, and it's very different."
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].