Hot for a half

If college football games lasted 30 minutes instead of 60, Tennessee might be leading the NCAA in total defense and scoring defense.

The Vol stop unit has been virtually impregnable in first-half action this fall, allowing a mere 345 yards and 20 points through the first three games. That's an average of just 115.0 yards and 6.7 points per half.

Tennessee's defense isn't nearly so imposing after halftime, however. The Vols have allowed 561 yards and 59 second-half points through their first three games. That's an average of 187.0 yards and 19.7 points per half.

If Vol defenders played both halves the way they play the first, they'd be allowing just 230 yards and 13.4 points per game. Conversely, if they played both halves the way they play the second, they'd be allowing 374 yards and 39.4 points per game.

The numbers are even more dramatic if you throw out Tennessee's opener against UT Martin of the Football Championship Subdivision, a team the Vols drilled 50-0. The Big Orange limited its two Football Bowl Subdivision foes - Oregon and Florida - to an average of 147 yards and 10 points in first-half action but allowed the same opponents to average 235 yards and 29.5 points in second-half action.

To be fair, it should be noted that 14 of the 59 second-half points opponents produced this fall were scored while the Vol defense was on the sidelines. Oregon got one of its second-half touchdowns on a punt return and another on an interception return. Even factoring that into the equation, though, opponents who combined for just 20 first-half points have burned UT's defense for 45 second-half points.

The obvious question: Why is Tennessee's defense so much saltier in the first two quarters than it is in the last two?

One possible answer is the Vols' lack of depth. The first-team defenders are stout until they begin to tire in the third period. At this point, a defense composed of weary first-teamers and inexperienced second-teamers begins giving up yardage in chunks.

Senior linebacker LaMarcus Thompson disputes this explanation, however.

"We've been rotating (reserves) in pretty good," he said, "so I wouldn't think it would be a fatigue issue."

Basically, Thompson believes the Vols' second-half defensive lapses can be traced to players blowing assignments rather than players sucking wind.

"Mistakes happen in football, and they just happen to be coming in the second half," he said. "We have to correct that. We have to keep working to get that right, and I think we will."

Head coach Derek Dooley offered no explanation for the disparity in Tennessee's first-half and second-half defensive yields, but admitted that "It concerns you."

When Tennessee scored on a 35-yard pass play to narrow the gap to 24-17 with 11:24 left in last Saturday's game with Florida, Dooley figured the Vols were one stop away from perhaps tying the score. Instead, the Gators promptly drove 60 yards to a clinching touchdown.

"I was disappointed that we couldn't get a stop with 11 minutes to go," he said. "We gave up a big play - gave up a third-and-nine when we couldn't get off the field.

"The Oregon game, they got us. They put it on us, and we broke. The Florida game, we just didn't execute."

Actually, the Vol defense executed quite well in the first half. But, following a season-long pattern, it faded down the home stretch.

Here's a look at the defensive performance in each of Tennessee's first three games, broken down by halves:

UT MARTIN

First half: 51 yards and 0 points

Second half: 91 yards and 0 points

OREGON

First half: 200 yards and 13 points

Second half: 247 yards and 35 points

FLORIDA

First half: 94 yards and 7 points

Second half: 223 yards and 24 points


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