KNOXVILLE - An old nemesis again has reared its ugly head for Tennessee.
After a short spell of success on third downs, the so-called money down doomed the Volunteers' in humbling road losses to top-10 opponents the past two weeks.
Alabama and Missouri converted 17 of 30 times on third down after the Vols limited South Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina below 35 percent. The problem goes back a little further for Tennessee's offense, which is a paltry 10-of-42 (23.8 percent) on third downs the past three games.
Quaterback Maty Mauk threw or ran for six of the Tigers' 10 third-down conversions and picked up gains of 20, 19 and 28 yards against Tennessee's defense last week.
"It's been the quarterback taking off on us," defensive coordinator John Jancek said after Wednesday's practice. "We went into the [South] Carolina game, and Connor Shaw had that reputation, and we really worked hard on it with our D-line and our linebackers keeping our points on the quarterback. We were able to contain Connor.
"We've continued to emphasize that and have not had the same results. I think Mauk's faster and quicker than what I gave him credit for initially. He is a very savvy, smart football player, and just found ways to keep the chains moving, not necessarily throwing the ball.
"We were really good in a lot of the coverage situations [except for] a couple things here and there. For the most part, we were really good, and he just took off. We've got to continue to work on it, and that's all I can say."
Next up for Tennessee is Auburn's Nick Marshall, who ran for 140 yards against Ole Miss and 100 against Texas A&M and scored two touchdowns in both games. The junior college transfer has thrived in first-year coach Gus Malzahn's up-tempo spread offense, which is averaging 36.8 points and 494.9 yards per game this season.
The former Georgia cornerback may be the best runner among the talented quarterbacks the Vols have faced this season.
Tennessee's offense, meanwhile, was only 2-of-13 on third down against Missouri and converted only three times on 12 third downs at Alabama. The Vols also are 1-of-4 on fourth downs the past two games. Six of Tennessee's season-high nine penalties against the Tigers were on offense
"As an offense, we would like to have executed better," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. "You can point to the offensive line, you can point to whoever you want, you can point to me. We talk about 11 hats being on the same page, and we did not execute as an offense like we want to execute. We're working on improving that."
Running back rotation
Since Marlin Lane missed the Georgia game with a foot injury, he's performed better than Rajion Neal despite getting only half the carries of Tennessee's senior starter.
In the last three games, Neal has 155 yards on 45 carries for a 3.4-yard per carry average, which is boosted by his 43-yard sprint against Alabama. Lane has 117 yards on 24 carries (4.9 yards per carry) in the same stretch.
Coach Butch Jones said Monday Lane would see an increased workload against Auburn after outperforming Neal last week.
"It's just the next man up," running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. "I don't count reps during the game. One guy gets a rep, and we call a play, or if a guy needs a spell, the next guy goes in. It's really not counted. It's really who's in the game at the time [based on] the things they do during the week.
"There's certain plays that Rai does a little bit better than Marlin, and so forth and so on, so we kind of let it go as that."
Bajakian said freshman quarterback Josh Dobbs, who will make his second start on Saturday, has done a good job this week of learning from both the good and bad of his performance against Missouri.
"He's done a good job of having that snap-and-clear mentality and is very even-keeled," he said. "He almost seems unflappable at times, so I think that's a good trait for a quarterback to have."
Tennessee's staff believes Dobbs has a bright future, and Bajakian noted that his new starting quarterback's approach hasn't changed much since he replaced the injured Justin Worley two weeks ago.
"The process about becoming a champion is about daily improvement," he said. "He understands that, and he works hard at it. It's been evident day one since his arrival on campus, and obviously there's more and more that we're able to fine-tune as he masters more and more skills and has a better understanding of the offense."
With three games left, it appears Tennessee will redshirt six freshmen in addition to two more older players.
Linebacker Justin King, who appeared in eight games as a wildcat quarterback and fullback last season, practiced at tight end in spring and missed all of training camp with a hamstring injury, also hasn't played this season. The Vols also chose to redshirt junior guard Marcus Jackson. Curt Maggitt won't play this season after tearing his ACL late last year.
Here's a list of the freshmen redshirting this season: receiver Ryan Jenkins, offensive lineman and former Bradley County standout Austin Sanders, offensive lineman Brett Kendrick and defensive ends Malik Brown and Kendal Vickers. Quarterback Riley Ferguson, who's split second-team reps this week with Nathan Peterman, also still can redshirt.
Defensive linemen Jason Carr and Jaylen Miller, who haven't played since the Oregon game in September, cannot redshirt after appearing in the season's first three games.