Third down for naught.
In last Saturday night's 52-24 loss at Alabama, the Tennessee Volunteers struggled repeatedly on college football's money down. The Vols were just 2-of-13 converting third downs on offense, while Alabama shredded their defense for a 15-of-20 success clip.
Tennessee's offensive issues were evident a minute into the game, when Jabari Small was thrown for a 3-yard loss on third-and-1. The Vols failed to convert four third-and-short opportunities, which included Hendon Hooker's third-and-3 pass in the fourth quarter that was intercepted by Jalyn-Armour Davis to seal the outcome.
"During the course of the season, there have been times on third-and-short where we have been really successful," Tennessee first-year coach Josh Heupel said this week in a news conference. "Last week we weren't. Some of that was just identification in the run game, and some of it was decision making, whether it was read opportunities for the quarterback. We've got to continue to clean those things up."
The Vols did have to play last Saturday without starting right tackle Cade Mays.
Third downs haven't been problematic overall for Tennessee's offense, with the Vols ranking 25th nationally with a 45.9% success rate, but Alabama's offense against Tennessee's defense was a mismatch in that category. The Crimson Tide lead the nation in third-down conversions with a 58.3% rate, while Vols defenders rank 118th, allowing a 45.7% clip.
Alabama converted one third-and-7 and two third-and-5 situations on its first touchdown drive and converted a third-and-12 and a third-and-7 on a scoring possession in the third quarter. After Tennessee got within 31-24 early in the fourth quarter, Bryce Young connected with Jameson Williams on a third-and-15 pass that picked up 65 yards to the Tennessee 15.
"Defensively, particularly on third-and-long, we've got to get off the football field," Heupel said. "Some of that has been quarterbacks extending plays and throwing the football down the field, and some of that has been quarterback scrambles. For us, when we're in a four-man front and our three-man front, we need to have the ability to push the pocket but then have rush integrity, too.
"When scrambles happen, we've got to do a better job of matching up at that point."
Not making excuses
Tennessee continued its early effectiveness last Saturday night by taking a 14-7 lead after 15 minutes, with the Vols increasing their first-quarter scoring advantage this season to 124-30.
The last three quarters haven't been so kind, as Tennessee has been outscored 182-175. Is that a reflection of the Vols being low on numbers and simply running out of gas?
"For sure, this is the thinnest football team just based off of numbers that I've been involved with as a coach or as a player," Heupel said. "At the end of the day, there is no asterisk next to this season for our players and coaches. It is what it is, and you're either good enough or you're not when you walk off the field on Saturday.
"I love competing with this group, and they're going to compete extremely hard and continue to grow, and there are some things that we can clean up that we can control that will help us play more efficiently at times."
'First big play'
Freshman defensive back De'Shawn Rucker has played in all eight games this season, with the 6-foot, 185-pounder from Tallahassee, Florida, recording four tackles.
Playing time in the secondary has been hard to come by given Tennessee's experience in that area, but Rucker grabbed a brief spotlight by blocking an Alabama punt early in the third quarter that enabled the Vols to pull within 21-17 on a Chase McGrath field goal.
"It was a rugby kick, so I just dove for it," Rucker said. "I got two hands on it, and once I blocked it, it was a big feeling for me. It was my first big play ever.
"Those were the beginning steps for me, and there was a lot of emotion after that."
Best of the bunch
Fifth-year senior defensive lineman LaTrell Bumphus had Brady Hoke as his position coach in 2017, Tracy Rocker during the 2018-19 seasons and had two position coaches, Jimmy Brumbaugh and Jeremy Pruitt, last year. Now it's Rodney Garner, who has quickly vaulted to the top of his list.
"I think he's by far the best coach we've had since we've been here," Bumphus said.