KNOXVILLE — Putting together a 60-minute effort has been a challenge for the Tennessee Volunteers this football season.
Five games into their schedule, they're halfway there.
Great first halves have usually been followed by poor second halves. Poor first halves have sometimes been followed by encouraging second halves. The lack of consistency, though, is a key reason why the Vols (1-4, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) have not had more success entering Saturday's noon game against visiting Mississippi State (3-2, 1-1), which will be televised on SEC Network.
Tennessee has averaged 6.2 yards per offensive play in the first half of its losses, only to follow that up by averaging 4.5 in the second half. Those numbers dipped to 4.1 in the second half of losses to top-10 opponents Florida and Georgia, teams whose offenses averaged 9.2 yards per play in the first half of lopsided wins.
Tennessee has a minus-4 turnover differential in the second half of those losses and has been outscored 84-36 in the second half and overtime of all games this season. Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt pointed to the turnover margin as part of the reason for the second-half struggles, and he also said penalties have played a role.
"It's one thing to get penalties, it's another thing to make them when you're getting positive plays," he explained. "Two games in a row, we've got penalties for offensive linemen being too aggressive. No. 1, we can't break the rules and we'll learn to stop when they blow the whistle, but first they have to blow a whistle so we can stop.
"But I am excited to see that we have guys up from that are trying to finish people and trying to put them into the ground. That's a long ways from where we started 22 months ago. We couldn't find five offensive linemen out there to practice. So now we're starting to have to slow them down, and that's a good thing. We have to get some discipline to understand not to make mistakes."
Tennessee led 17-14 at halftime of its opener against Georgia State before losing 38-30, and the Vols were up 13-3 after two quarters against BYU only to fall 29-26 in double overtime. Each of those opponents produced more than 200 yards after halftime.
With the exception of their lone win this season, 45-0 against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the Vols have averaged 198.5 offensive yards in the first half and 152.5 after the break.
Defensive lineman Matthew Butler said the Vols have probably about "half positive" plays and correct alignment two-thirds of the time, but there have been too many instances in which one player out of position has cost them a potential productive series or, ultimately, a victory.
"Frankly, we're tired of everybody telling us we play well in the first half, because playing well in the first half doesn't win you games," Butler said. "We just have to emulate that (good first-half) performance and put it into a four-quarter game. We have to play for 60 minutes, and we need to do that for the rest of the games on out."
Done for 2019
Pruitt said senior receiver Brandon Johnson will redshirt this season and return in 2020.
Johnson, the Vols' leading receiver in 2017 with 582 yards on 37 catches, has 707 yards on 58 catches in his Tennessee career, which includes two 100-yard games. The 6-foot-2, 195-pounder had just two catches for 31 yards this year but did have a 24-yard touchdown on special teams after scooping up the ball when Tyler Byrd blocked a punt against UTC on Sept. 14.
Johnson played in the first four games this season but not against Georgia. An NCAA rule implemented last season allows football players to appear in four games in a single season without it counting toward their eligibility.
"We talked about it as a staff, and I met with Brandon, his mom and dad, and we decided to do that," Pruitt said. "Brandon has probably played about eight to 12 snaps offensively, but he's a guy that has really good ability.
"We have some senior guys ahead of him, so it's something we've decided to do."
Byrd, Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings are Tennessee receivers in their final season. Byrd does not have a catch this year, but Jennings leads the Vols in receptions (26), receiving yards (395) and touchdown catches (five). Callaway is second in those categories at 13, 259 and three.