Tennessee Vols need offense to be more opportunistic

Tennessee Vols need offense to be more opportunistic

October 4th, 2013 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley will remain the Vols' starter after helping the team beat South Alabama on Saturday.

Photo by Patrick Smith/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee's defense was opportunistic throughout September.

The Volunteers need their offense to match that style in October.

In the last two games against Florida and South Alabama, Tennessee started seven possessions on the opponent's side of the field, with five of them beginning immediately after a turnover.

The results of those possessions were four interceptions, one fumble, one punt and three measly points.

If Tennessee is to pull an upset against sixth-ranked Georgia on Saturday, or later this month against No. 13 South Carolina and top-ranked Alabama, the Vols can't afford to give away points in such scenarios.

"Our focus just has to be that much higher to focus and lock in and put the ball in the end zone," quarterback Justin Worley said. "I know we've come away with a few field goals that we should have had touchdowns on. [It's] just focusing in and really concentrating on what we need to do.

"I think a lot of it comes down to execution and that consistency I've talked about."

In its first five games, Tennessee's defense registered 15 takeaways, which leads the SEC and ranks third nationally. That's only two fewer than former coordinator Sal Sunseri's defense managed in 12 games last season. The Vols have intercepted 11 passes and returned three for touchdowns.

The Vols turned the ball over just three times in their first three games, but that number has ballooned to nine the past two weeks, and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian pointed to ball security as the biggest key to taking advantage of positive situations.

Two of the sudden-change turnovers the past two games came with Nathan Peterman at quarterback against Florida, and one of Worley's interceptions was on the final play of that game.

The Vols converted LaDarrell McNeil's first-quarter interception into just a field goal last week against South Alabama. Jacob Carter's 18-yard punt return set Tennessee up at the Jaguars' 49-yard line, but that drive ended when Worley forced a throw into triple coverage with Tennessee in range for a long field-goal attempt.

Worley answered an interception in the third quarter by throwing a pickoff, though that pass was tipped into the defender's hands when the Vols missed a cut block up front.

The average starting field position for Tennessee on those seven possessions was the opponent's 33-yard line.

"We need to do a better job of taking care of the football at all times," Bajakian said. "I think as you look at red-zone efficiency, as you look at points generated off turnovers, at a minimum in some of those situations we should be able to line up and kick a field goal.

"When we turn the ball over, we walk away with zero points as opposed to three, and not being able to move the ball to get to seven points is something that we stress. We're always emphasizing getting touchdowns in the red zone, but at the same point [we] at least have three points in our back pocket."

That's especially true with the way kicker Michael Palardy has performed this season. The senior year made his first four field-goal attempts of the season -- including two beyond 40 yards, where he's really struggled in his career -- before his 52-yard try hit the hand of holder Tyler Drummer last week. He's averaging 44.1 yards per punt and has nine touchbacks, too.

Though they managed only eight in the past three games, the Vols have recorded 22 red-zone possessions, which is tied for 22nd nationally. With 16 touchdowns on those possessions, they are tied for 29th in touchdown percentage. The overall percentage (.818), though, ranks just 70th in the country.

"If you go up in our team room, you'll see our plan to win, and one of the plans to win is scoring touchdowns in the red zone," Bajakian said. "Our guys have known since -- not just since we started the season, but since training camp, since spring practice -- that that's very important.

"We spend a lot of time practicing in the red zone, and we need to execute better in the red zone."

Said center James Stone: "I feel like that's frustrating for the offense because we know we're putting our defense at a disadvantage. We need to reward them for creating turnovers. We have to capitalize on that in order to help the team, so that's something we're really focused on."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.