'D' Vols focus on thirds

'D' Vols focus on thirds

October 9th, 2009 by Wes Rucker in Sports - College

Staff Photo by Dan Henry The University of Tennessee's defense has been tested often, especially since the offense has been unable to control the ball.

Staff Photo by Dan Henry The University of Tennessee's...

KNOXVILLE -- University of Tennessee defenders seemingly have no shortage of valid excuses for their inconsistent third-down stopping ability.

For all the Volunteers' talents on that side of the ball, they don't have much depth. And several of their top players are limited or out of the lineup with injuries.

Also, the offense's failure to produce first-half touchdowns against quality opponents has allowed teams to play conservatively and chew up second-half clock.

Beyond that, the Vols and their coaches had certainly seen nothing quite like Auburn's fast-paced, gadget-heavy, spread offense last Saturday. The Tigers dialed up several trick plays to move the chains, and many of them worked.

So there are the excuses.

But the Vols say they won't accept any of them.

"All of that is frustrating, but it all comes back to us getting off the field and making the play," senior weakside linebacker Rico McCoy said. "Just put in the extra effort and make the play. Get off the field on third down. Our offense gets the ball a little longer that way."

McCoy's stance didn't sway when a reporter reminded him that the Vols' offense wasn't enjoying much third-down success, either.

"No excuses," he said. "If we are tired, it's our fault. It's our fault we're still out there. It's our fault. Get off the field. Create a turnover. You can't blame that on anybody else. That's on us."

That noble stance seems somewhat of a stretch.

UT's defense was on the field for more than 90 snaps against Auburn, including plays that were called back because of penalty. Coach Lane Kiffin whistled two timeouts in the first half to give the defense a break.

"Yeah, I can't remember another time we've had to do that," Kiffin said. "But you've got to do what you've got to do."

And the Vols have to find a way to get off the field against Georgia, which has one of college football's best third-down security blankets in A.J. Green.

Green, a 6-foot-4, 207-pound sophomore flanker, uses a spectacular blend of skill and athleticism to bail out the Bulldogs consistently. UT defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said Green was in the same talent class as NFL stars Terrell Owens and Randy Moss, and Monte's son was just as complimentary.

"He's really dynamic," Lane Kiffin said of Green. "He has the ability to go up and make plays with the ball, and then once he has it in his hand he's like a little guy. He's so quick and there's so many missed tackles on him. He's almost impossible to defend.

"A number of people are going to have to do a great job on him. And obviously it would help to get our pass rush going back, too."

It's no small coincidence that UT's sacking proficiency sank two weeks ago, when junior defensive end Chris Walker aggravated an unspecified lower-back injury.

Asked about the shrinking sack totals, Lane Kiffin joked, "Are you trying to get me to rip my dad?"

Lane stopped smirking and turned serious before adding that he and his father have never coached a team that went 88 consecutive passing attempts without a sack.

"It's hard to deal with," Lane said. "We're there, but there's nine sacks that we've missed in the past two games. They're there to be had, but we've got to do a better job scheming them up, and we've got to do a better job making plays when it's there.

"Both the quarterbacks we've played the past two weeks, when you go back and watch it, they did a great job making a lot of plays out of rhythm. They did a great job, but we've got to do a better job getting them down the first time, so they can't make those scramble plays."

UT's third-down defense is still ranked 39th out of 120 major-college programs at 34.3 percent. The Vols' past three opponents were 21-for-48, though, and SEC foes Auburn and Florida were 14-for-30.

"It really gets to you," UT senior defensive lineman Wes Brown said. "You want to get off the field and give the offense a chance to score. We've been working on third down, and we've just had some tough times lately.

"We've just got to get off the field on third downs. No excuses."

The coaching staff has tried creating game-like intensity every day on the practice field. They often reach a fever pitch in third-down competitions, when their voices are often heard well outside the football complex.

Results must show themselves on Saturdays, though, Monte Kiffin said.

"We're like 36 percent or something (on third downs), but that's still not good enough," Monte said. "Making plays ... that's why you play the game."