Vols defensive debacle at South Carolina: ‘We felt like it would be given to us’

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee senior linebacker Aaron Beasley said the Volunteers didn’t have any defensive urgency during Saturday night’s 63-38 loss at South Carolina.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee senior linebacker Aaron Beasley said the Volunteers didn’t have any defensive urgency during Saturday night’s 63-38 loss at South Carolina.

It's hard not to describe Tennessee's defensive performance in Saturday night's 63-38 loss at South Carolina as anything other than a complete abomination.

The biggest question now concerning the staggered Volunteers -- bigger even than how Joe Milton III performs moving forward for an injured Hendon Hooker -- is whether the effort in Williams-Brice Stadium was a one-time thing. Tennessee was bounced from the College Football Playoff picture by the Gamecocks but could still notch a 10-2 season with a win Saturday at Vanderbilt.

"It's a prideful group that has played well at times, but obviously this was not a good performance," Vols second-year coach Josh Heupel said this week during a news conference. "There were more missed assignments. We didn't tackle well. There were some things that we could've controlled, and obviously they played well, too, but we're disappointed in those things.

"We didn't defeat blocks, and that was up front and out on the perimeter. We didn't make plays in space. Those are things that, at the end of the day, you have to do. We have to learn from it, grow from it and be better."

It's difficult to fathom how the Vols could play any worse defensively under second-year coordinator Tim Banks, as they allowed the nation's 92nd-ranked offense to amass 35 first downs and 606 total yards. Embattled South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler looked like a Heisman Trophy candidate, snapping out of a disappointing few weeks by completing 30 of 37 passes for 438 yards and six touchdowns, and unheralded receiver Antwane Wells Jr. torched Tennessee's secondary for 11 catches for 177 yards.

The Gamecocks were 8-of-11 on third down, 2-of-2 on fourth down and scored touchdowns on nine of their 10 possessions that didn't involve the end of each half, and some explanations provided by Tennessee players since have only added to the inexplicable result.

"We didn't execute the calls we should have executed," senior linebacker Aaron Beasley said, "and, in my opinion, we didn't have the urgency at the start of the game. We thought we were going to go in there and everything was going to fall where it was supposed to, and it doesn't work like that.

"The execution and the urgency weren't there."

Beasley continued that line of reasoning by adding, "We just felt like it would be given to us. We didn't feel like we had to go out there and work for it. We thought they were going to lay down, but they played a great game."

The Gamecocks were coming off an embarrassing 38-6 loss at Florida in which their only score transpired off a fake punt, but last Saturday night was their home finale. Tennessee's secondary was exposed repeatedly, but the Vols had been able to get to quarterbacks Jayden Daniels of LSU and Will Levis of Kentucky nine combined times last month.

Tennessee sacked Rattler once.

"The small details really hurt us in the game," junior nose tackle Omari Thomas said. "We got cut out of gaps and didn't get off blocks. We didn't use our hands or play as physical as we usually do."

Said senior edge-rusher Byron Young: "We've just got to put it behind us. That's the mentality we've got to have right now."

The Vols played Saturday without fifth-year senior linebacker Jeremy Banks, who didn't make the trip to Columbia for reasons Heupel hasn't elected to reveal. Defensive backs Doneiko Slaughter and Brandon Turnage were injured during the game and did not return, leaving their status in question for the Nashville trip as well.

Last Saturday's debacle has resulted to Tennessee falling to 100th out of 131 FBS teams in total defense (allowing 411.9 yards per game) and 130th in pass defense (303.4), which is one spot behind the Commodores (303.2).

"There are probably a couple of things Coach Banks would change, but you're trying to balance everything, too," Heupel said, "and that's from your numbers count in the box to protecting your guys out on the outside. At the end of the day, there are some plays we're capable of making that we didn't make in some of the one-on-one situations. We just didn't play well enough."

And the Vols have been given a 60-minute opportunity for atonement.

"This will really just show how much we love this game and how much we actually love our jobs," Beasley said. "We've got to go out there and change the script again and end the season on a good note."

One Tennessee

With the Vols ranking No. 1 nationally in total offense (540.4) and No. 100 in total defense, there would seem to be the potential for some dissension, but junior running back Jabari Small said Tuesday that is not the case.

"It's good. We're one team," Small said. "Yeah, we play different positions on different sides of the ball, but we're just Tennessee. We kind of sense when somebody needs to pick up the slack if that's the case, but we know we have to play as one."

Cronan honored

Joan Cronan, who was the women's athletic director at Tennessee from 1983 through 2012, has been named this year's recipient of the SEC's Michael L. Slive Distinguished Service Award. She will be honored during the SEC Legends Celebration on Dec. 2 in Atlanta, which is the night before Georgia and LSU play in the league championship game.

"Joan Cronan's leadership and vision for women's athletics helped build Tennessee into a national brand," conference commissioner Greg Sankey said, "all while amassing conference and national championships, expanding the budget at UT for the betterment of women's athletics, increasing the annual giving for women's athletics and increasing women's sports sponsorship."

Odds and ends

Tennessee offensive coordinator Alex Golesh has been named among the 15 semifinalists for the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach. ... The closest Tennessee-Vanderbilt margin of victory in the last five meetings is 18 points.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.