Hargis: Vols’ third-down issues lead to another frustrating defeat

AP photo by John Raoux / Florida receiver Kahleil Jackson stays in bounds and makes a catch behind Tennessee defensive back Warren Burrell during the first half of Saturday's matchup of SEC East rivals in Gainesville, Fla.
AP photo by John Raoux / Florida receiver Kahleil Jackson stays in bounds and makes a catch behind Tennessee defensive back Warren Burrell during the first half of Saturday's matchup of SEC East rivals in Gainesville, Fla.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Of the laundry list of issues that led to yet another inexplicably horrendous loss by the University of Tennessee in the Swamp, the first was third down.

After holding Florida's offense on third-and-long on the game's opening drive Saturday night, the Volunteers failed to stop the Gators another time on that down before halftime. Not one single stop.

The Gators were 7-of-8 on third downs they faced in the first half, which swung the door wide open for them to claim momentum, turning a 7-0 deficit into a 26-7 lead at halftime.

"We didn't get off the field. We had them in some third-and-long situations, applied some pressure, but we didn't get them off the field," said Vols coach Josh Heupel, visibly frustrated after his team lost 29-16 in its Southeastern Conference opener to fall to 2-1. "We've got to be better and get off the field.

"Extremely disappointed. Not very good in any sense. Offense had the one good drive and defense had one stop. Other than that, not the way you want to start. We've got to get a lot better."

(READ MORE: 'Extremely disappointing' Vols unravel for 10th consecutive loss in the Swamp)

From the 4:10 mark of the first quarter until 2:22 remained in the half, Florida's four possessions went: four plays for 75 yards, 14 plays for 82 yards, three plays for 9 yards and seven plays for 55 yards. All four ended with a touchdown.

During that same span, the Gators needed 5 yards or more six times and picked up the first down without much resistance each time. They scored a touchdown on the next snap twice after converting, and the lone short-yardage situation they faced was third-and-goal at the 1-yard line, which Graham Mertz turned into a touchdown.

Over the same time frame, UT's offense failed to slow the momentum, picking up just 36 total yards with three punts and an interception that was returned to the Vols' 9-yard line to set up Mertz's short touchdown run.

Everything after that point was merely window dressing.

"You can look at tackling, not getting of the field on third down (defensively) and offensively, look at pre-snap penalties and lack of efficiency as a huge part of the problem," Heupel said. "You've got to give yourself a chance early in the football game. We did not play well enough on both sides of the ball after that first drive.

"Our job as a competitor is to reset and go play the next play. First half, man, you've got to stop them. That wasn't very good football."

(READ MORE: Heupel on the Vols: 'We're going to need to be better than we were tonight')

  photo  AP photo by John Raoux / Florida running back Montrell Johnson Jr. (2) scores a touchdown on an 18-yard pass as Tennessee's Roman Harrison is unable to stop him at the goal line during Saturday night's game in Gainesville, Fla.

The deciding factor for so many of the defensive lapses began up front, but as has been a troubling trend in three of UT's last four road games, the back end failed to show up. With the exception of their blowout win at Vanderbilt to end the regular season last year -- which was essentially a home game for the Vols in Nashville -- the secondary was exploited in a massive way at South Carolina when Spencer Rattler threw for a career highs in yardage and touchdowns, as well as at Georgia, and was again a problem Saturday night.

It started with Kamal Hadden's poor decision to try and bring Florida's Trevor Etienne down by throwing a shoulder into the burly running back as he had a full head of steam, but Hadden wasn't the only Vols defender who failed miserably to bring down a Florida ball carrier in open field.

And it extended into pass coverage as Gators receivers were given barely more than a glance as they raced past the Vols to find open space for a big gain.

"In the first half, at the end of the day, nobody was doing what they needed to do at the level they need to," Heupel said. "That starts with me and our coaching staff, too.

"It was a myriad of things that happened on those sequences, but at the end of the day we've got to operate, and we didn't."

The Vols' next shot at finally passing a road test comes on Oct. 21 at Alabama, which so far this season has gotten very little output from the passing game — Ty Simpson and Tyler Buchner were a combined 10-of-23 for 107 yards Saturday in a 17-3 escape at South Florida.

For the Vols to salvage a season that brought plenty of expectations, they must begin by solving the third-down puzzle defensively.

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293.