KNOXVILLE -- Austin Johnson simply shrugged and shook his head.
Tennessee's starting middle linebacker is very aware of the Volunteers' third-quarter struggles, but he's grasping at air trying to explain them.
"I still don't know what is is," said linebacker Austin Johnson. "It might be a little bit mental and people starting to mentally fatigue, but after halftime you're rested and ready to go. It blows me away how it just keeps happening. It's frustrating, to be honest with you."
The Vols' problems coming out of halftime go back to last year when, in losses to Oregon, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina, they were outscored 66-14 in the third quarter. In three Southeastern Conference losses this season, UT has been outscored 35-6 and outgained 387-46 in the third quarter.
Instead of sitting down and trying to come up with an explanation, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox suggested an fundamental solution after Wednesday morning's practice.
"We've got to execute better," he said. "I think we've got to come out of the locker room ready to play and know they're going to do what they've been doing. [If] it's third-and-6, we've got to get off the field. When it's first-and-10, we've got to do a good job in the run game.
"It's just execution. Everybody is going to look for an answer on why is this not happening, as opposed to here, let's go back and look at the plays, this is your play to make, we've got to make this play. We don't need to make it more than that."
Tennessee's players on each side of the ball can share the blame. Aside from Buffalo's 14-yard third quarter, UT has allowed an average of 122 yards in the third quarter of the other five games. Offensively, the Vols' first drives of the second half have ended in one touchdown, one interception, a safety and three punts. In UT's last two games against Georgia and LSU, the Vols have just four total first downs to the opponent's 16 in the third quarter.
"I don't think it's been much schematic, and I would say if I felt it was," coach Derek Dooley said. "I think there's a lot of physical and mental stamina that our team doesn't have right now that's going to come in time with experience and learning how to sustain this physical kind of games for 60 minutes. I think it does take a toll."
Quarterback Tyler Bray threw an interception on the first play of the second half in the loss at Florida, and the Gators turned the turnover into a touchdown. An errant snap from James Stone forced UT to punt from its end zone against Georgia, and the Bulldogs drove the short field and scored. In the loss to LSU, the Vols drove to the Tigers' 30 before Tauren Poole lost 7 yards on an option play.
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney chose to look at that drive as a positive.
"I'd say like anything other halftime - you guys are talking a lot about that evidently - our drive was fine until we lost 7 yards," he said. "I would say [the first drive out of halftime] is no different than any other drive we have during the season."
Responding to negative plays was a problem for the Vols last season, but the Vols have been better this year at answering. UT's offense bounced back with two scoring drives and a turnover on defense when Florida scored two quick third-quarter touchdowns. The Vols fought back to within a score of Georgia. The issue against top-ranked LSU was third-down defense: the Tigers converted their first five third downs of the second half.
"Certainly in the Georgia game, frustration was more of an issue," Dooley said. "[Against LSU] I think it was the changes that happened that really appealed to their athleticism, snapping it to the quarterback. We just struggled to tackle the guy. We had about three third-and-5s where in the first half we won, we didn't win this time.
"I don't think we've been flat in any of the second halves. I think it has to do with frustration and composure early on and then this week was a little different. We're playing some good teams."
If UT is to have any shot at upsetting second-ranked Alabama when it visits Tuscaloosa on Saturday, it'll need to avoid another poor second-half start. The Crimson Tide have outscored opponents 86-14 in the third quarter this season.
"We just have to make stops," Johnson said. "We're not coming out dead or tired or anything like that. I think we just have to come out and make plays like we did in the first half."