Vols still searching for answers on defense

photo Alton "Pig" Howard of Tennessese and Troy's Bryan Willis reach for the ball after Howard lost control of the ball. Willis recovered the ball and the play was first not called a fumble, but the ruling was overturned and Troy received the ball first and ten.

TENNESSEE TEN: OFFENSIVE DEFENSEAfter allowing Troy to roll up 721 yards of offense on Saturday, Tennessee dropped into the bottom 10 nationally in yards allowed per game. Instead of making progress, the Volunteers appearing to be backsliding defensively. Coaches and players alike are frustrated by the struggles.Here's how Tennessee ranks in 10 key defensive categories out of 124 Bowl Subdivision teams:Category (Stat / NCAA Rank)Total defense (483.1 ypg / 115th)Scoring defense (35.4 ppg / 110th)Run defense (186.3 ypg / 92nd)Pass defense (296.8 ypg / 120th)Pass efficiency defense (139.84 / 92nd)Sacks (12 /t-98th)Plays of 20+ yards allowed (60 / t-119th)Third-down defense (61.8 % / 53rd)Red-zone defense (TD %) (39.4 % / t-66th)First downs allowed (23.3 fdpg /t-96th)

KNOXVILLE - The search for answers appears to have reached a dead end for Tennessee's defense.

Watching a mid-tier team from the Sun Belt Conference run up and down your field for four hours will have that affect.

The Volunteers were left grasping for straws as Troy's Trojans put up a gaudy 721 yards of offense on Saturday, and though it was an embarrassment for first-year coordinator Sal Sunseri's defense that's been bad all season, Tennessee will continue trying to address the problems this week.

"I feel like guys know what their job is," linebacker Curt Maggitt said. "I think we aren't executing well and doing our jobs. I think it's important for everybody to do their job and have faith in the guy next to them.

"I think our defense is pretty simple at this point. Coach Sal is doing the best he can. It's on us -- we've just got to go out there and execute it."

Nothing Tennessee tried to execute against Troy worked, as the Trojans' up-tempo spread continuously gave the Vols fits. There were missed tackles, busts in coverages and gaping holes for Troy backs and receivers to find. It looked like it has all season.

It'll be a similar challenge this week when Missouri visits Knoxville seeking its second Southeastern Conference win. The Tigers fell by a touchdown at Florida on Saturday in quarterback James Franklin's first start since a September injury. The dual-threat Franklin has had his 2012 season marred by injuries and threw for 236 yards with four interceptions against the Gators.

Though the Tigers are just 109th nationally in yards per game, Tennessee's porous defense is having a historically bad season, though it's actually gotten stops in some timely moments as it did in the fourth quarter against Troy.

"I think the biggest thing is, no matter what, the ultimate objective is to win the game," coach Derek Dooley said. "At some point you've got to get stops. We've got a lot of problems, obviously.

"You've got to go play the next play. That's all you can do. We made a ton of mistakes, which is the same storyline."

The Vols have tried simplifying schemes and calls and changing personnel at each level of their defense. In diagnosing the issues, Dooley has said throughout the season a number of factors are plaguing Tennessee. When the defense is that ineffective, it truly isn't just one problem.

There's not been much pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The secondary struggles in coverage on underneath routes, patterns across the middle of the field and on deep vertical passes. Dooley has reiterated a need for him and his coaching staff to do a better job in teaching the schemes and techniques.

He said Saturday in his film review there's "not very many" instances where the calls are wrong.

"It's how we play them, or do we understand it," Dooley continued. "That's the bulk of the issues.

"We just need to go look at the film and see if the calls were the problem or the technique was the problem or if communication's the problem. They made a lot of just plays on us. We'll just have to go look at the film and evaluate it, I don't know any other way to say it

The issues have been frustrating for the players, but they are trying to keep as optimistic an outlook as they can.

"It can get frustrating at times, but we just stick together," nickelback Eric Gordon said. "We believe in one another as a unit. We believe in our coaching staff.

"It's easy to point the finger when things aren't going good and when things aren't going your way, but we just stick together. We try to stay mature about the whole situation and just be a team. I do feel like this is a different team, and we're a lot closer than last season."

Maggitt was one player who said after the game defensive performance was embarrassing or unacceptable. Fortunately Tennessee won the game thanks to a record-setting game from the offense. That kept the really bad from becoming even worse.

"I feel pretty good, better than you guys think," Dooley said. "Think of the alternative right now. Whenever I don't feel good, I think about, 'What's the alternative?'"

For Tennessee's defense, that question might not have an answer.

Upcoming Events