KNOXVILLE - For the most part, Tennessee's football coaching staff felt its defense turned in a solid performance on the road against the nation's fourth-ranked team.
It's the what-ifs of Saturday night's 34-10 loss at Oklahoma the Volunteers will ponder this week during their open date.
While Oklahoma's offense piled up 454 yards and a healthy 27 points, Tennessee looked back at the big passinig plays it allowed as the difference between a good performance and a potentially great one.
"We made some plays," secondary coach Willie Martinez said following Tuesday's practice. "We made the same type of plays that we gave up. You can't miss tackles, and that's what hurt us. We had way too many missed tackles.
"We had eight in the secondary, and that's way too many. The first ballgame we had one, and that hurt us. The yards after catch hurt us. That's directly at us. That's what we're supposed to be responsible for, and it can't happen."
Oklahoma had six plays -- five of them passes -- that accounted for 194 yards and powered four scoring drives, but the Vols limited the hosts to roughly 4 yards per play outside of those big gains.
A coverage bust here, a miscommunication there and some missed tackles in the open field ultimately doomed Tennessee.
"It was a variety of things, three or four different things that kind of haunted us," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "There's things from day-one teaching we haven't screwed up all year, and we made those mistakes Saturday in Norman. It hurt us."
On Oklahoma's first touchdown, either linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin or freshman safety Todd Kelly -- two players making their first road starts -- blitzed when they weren't supposed to, and that left tailback Keith Ford wide open for an easy path to the end zone on a swing pass.
Later in the first quarter, cornerback Michael Williams let Sterling Shepard slip through his hands, and the Oklahoma receiver turned a short slant into a 45-yard gain to set up a field goal. Another breakdown when two defensive backs went with one receiver left Duron Neal free to turn a slant into a 43-yard gain on the opening drive of the second half.
"The kids, we thought they tried hard," linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said. "When they go back and they look at it, you'll say, 'Man, we left a lot of plays out there.' Just a couple of misfits early in the game and a couple of blown assignments due to miscommunication. That was the disheartening thing.
"As far as the physicality part, we thought guys were in position to make tackles, and for the most part they made the plays when they were in position to make it."
Though the gauntlet of the SEC awaits the thin unit, Tennessee has to be encouraged by how its defensive line has played through three games and particularly how it held up against Oklahoma. The Vols occasionally had defensive linemen shooting into the backfield to start a play for a linebacker or defensive back to clean up.
Jancek said he thought the defensive line "took the fight" to the Sooners.
"I don't want to say they've exceeded my expectations," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. "I had a high expectation for this crew, and I think [freshman defensive end Derek] Barnett and some guys have added some elements to us. I think Saturday was a good test to be able to line up against a big, physical offensive line like we're going to see in our conference every week.
"I think we felt good about the fact that we're playing leverage, we're straining, we're using our hands and doing all those things. There's areas we've obviously got to get better at -- pass rush being one -- so now we can maybe take this week and focus on those areas."
Tennessee geared its game plan to slow Oklahoma's running game, and the plan paid off, as the Vols limited the Sooners, who feature a very big and very veteran offensive line and a trio of former four-star recruits at tailback, to 146 yards.
That plan left the Vols in some one-on-one situations on the perimeter, and Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight was able to exploit them for a 308-yard night.
Given its personnel up front, Tennessee may have to rely on a similar blueprint with SEC play looming.
"Being young, I thought there would be a lot more issues than what have occurred," Jancek said. "I think they've been able to learn things quickly. I think they've been able to apply some concepts that have helped them progress at a pretty good rate, and I'm just really pleased with their overall level of maturity as a group."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.