KNOXVILLE — No football team wants to be in third-and-long situations offensively, but the University of Tennessee has been an extreme example through two games this season.
The Volunteers went a combined 7-for-30 on third downs against UT-Martin and Oregon, including a 2-for-15 dud against the Ducks.
“We’re struggling a little bit on third down because we’re struggling a little bit throwing the ball in the dropback game,” UT coach Derek Dooley said Monday afternoon. “And there’s a lot of reasons for it. It’s not just the quarterback.”
Junior quarterback Matt Simms hasn’t been surgically sharp — something he freely acknowledges — but Dooley summarized a long list of other issues.
“It takes good protection,” the coach said. “It takes a good snap, it takes fast routes, recognizing the coverage and delivering the football and catching it. And we’ve got to get better at that.
“Usually, when you look at your pass effectiveness, if it’s not very good your third downs probably aren’t very good, either. Once you get third-and-4-plus, 80 percent of the time you’re going to be throwing it.”
And nearly 80 percent of the time, the Vols haven’t been converting.
“In the passing game, whenever you have third-and-long, it’s tough. It really is,” Simms said. “The defenses can really hone in on what you’re doing offensively because you’re at a disadvantage.”
The Ducks capitalized on most of those disadvantages by putting their defense in good positions, Simms added.
“Against Oregon ... we didn’t win first down like we set our goals to,” he said. “Our goal is to win first down at least 65 or 70 percent of the time. I think it turned out that we only won first down 35 percent of the time. Whenever that happens, it’s going to be tough.
“We know what our offense is. We’re a run-first, play-action, kind of wear-defenses-out [offense]. When we get stuck in third-and-long situations, it’s tough for us.”
UT faced the Ducks without top receiver target Gerald Jones (broken hand), and that certainly didn’t help the Vols on third down. Without Jones, the middle of the field might as well have been a force field. The Vols didn’t throw anywhere near the heart of Oregon’s defense, choosing to throw curls, hitches and occasional lonog routes down the sideline.
“That was a little bit by design,” Dooley said. “We just felt like our best chance to win the football game was establish the run game — which we did a great job of — and win one-on-one [matchups] outside. We did that at times, and then we had some shots that we missed that we could take.
“That was our plan. That was what we were going to do to win the game, and for a while there the plan was working pretty well.”
But that strategy severely limited preseason All-SEC tight end Luke Stocker’s involvement.
“Our game plan last week was to go to the receivers on the outside — they play a lot of one-on-one, man-to-man coverage — and just let them make plays,” Stocker said. “And then I think the weather conditions might have pushed us more into a run-type offense. I’m not sure.
“I don’t get too consumed with the numbers and stuff. I just try to think positively and know that I can contribute in other ways.”
Also, Simms often has stared at his primary receivers in passing situations. To an extent, though, Dooley hasn’t minded that tunnel vision.
“He is focusing on one side for a reason, but there’s two or three guys over there that he can throw it to,” Dooley said. “A lot of it depends on the play. Sometimes on some of those slot plays, it’s throw it to one guy and then here’s your checkdown [receiver option]. It just depends on the play. We have not done a lot — we did some the first game — where he can get back and see what’s happening out there.
“But he had a couple of batted balls that he could have avoided. He didn’t play his best game.”
Simms said offensive coordinator Jim Chaney would “let me have it” in the film room if he looked to his right when he was supposed to be throwing to his left.
“A lot of the stuff that we do has to be kind of designed to do that,” Simms said. “I can’t be too creative back there and try to look off defenders. We have a game plan where we just have one or two options or three, and on the film they want my eyes to be looking where my reads are. At times it’s really one or two guys, so if my eyes aren’t where those guys are, I’m going to hear about it the next day.
“I’ve got to make sure my eyes are on my target and where I need to be looking.”
Solutions, whatever they may be, need to surface in a hurry. The Vols host 10th-ranked Florida on Saturday.
“You can’t really get mad at it,” senior wide receiver Denarius Moore said. “We have to believe in the coaches and believe in what they are trying to do.”
Contacts for Wes Rucker are email@example.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.