'Game anxiety'

Tennessee's defensive players are fired up each time they take the field for a new half of football. In fact, they may be too fired up.

Several defenders blame over-excitement for the mistakes that have caused the Vols to give up a disproportionate number of points on opponents' first drives of each half this fall.

"Sometimes we go out there with a lot of anxiety," senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. "A lot of people are excited to play the game and we have to calm down, don't let the big-time stage get to us."

Sophomore safety Brent Brewer agreed, noting: "Everybody's so excited and pumped (at the start of each half) that I guess we just forget or do something wrong. We've just got to stay on an even keel, concentrate and do our jobs. As we calm down we get more comfortable."

Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox concedes that his troops occasionally are guilty of being too pumped up for the start of a half.

"That's game anxiety," he said following Wednesday's practice. "As opposed to relying on your fundamentals, relying on your eyes and doing the things you've done in practice all week, we've had a tendency early in games and early in halves to try something we haven't done before.

"It's important to ride that line. If you get too anxious your performance will decline. I think that's a lesson for everybody."

Tennessee has faced three reasonably good offenses through five games; each of the three scored on its opening drive of the first half and its opening drive of the second half.

Check it out:

Game 2: Cincinnati scored a touchdown on its first possession of the game and kicked a field goal on its first possession of the second half.

Game 3: Florida scored a touchdown on its first possession of the game and added TDs on its first two possessions of the second half.

Game 5: Georgia kicked a field goal on its first possession of the game and scored touchdowns on its first two possessions of the second half.

Given these numbers, you'd think that Wilcox would try to calm his troops during pre-game warmups and halftime.

"I do, but everybody's a little different," he said. "Everybody prepares differently. Everybody has got a different energy level that they perform best at. It's different for each guy, so you have to help him find that. If we know he's a guy that gets geeked up, we've got to bring him down. If we know he needs a little more juice, we have to pick him up. It's different from person to person."

Although Tennessee is fielding a very young defense this season, Wilcox declines to use that as an excuse. After conceding that freshmen and sophomores are more susceptible to over-exuberance and nerves, he added, "but I've seen seniors who are that way, too."

One factor that makes an offense especially difficult to stop on its opening possession is the element of surprise.

"You practice all week for what they've shown on tape that they're going to run but you know that you're usually going to see something new," Wilcox said. "To be able to adjust quickly on the move like that is a challenge sometimes.

"What we've got to do is be able to play the principles of the defense, even if it's something we haven't seen. We've got to do a better job of that, and I think we have."

Many offenses unveil some new wrinkles at the start of the third quarter, as well, forcing the coordinator to adjust his defense again.

"Sometimes you'll get new formations at the start of the second half," Wilcox said. "Once you get to the sideline a lot of times it's a matter of, 'OK, here's what they're doing. Now we've got to go stop 'em.'"

Even with all of the cat-and-mouse antics, however, most games still go to the team that executes best.

"They've got good players, too," Wilcox said, "so if you're not spot-on with your run fits and matching up with the (pass) patterns, good teams will hurt you."

Especially, it seems, on the first possession of each half.

To hear more from Wilcox, hit play on the video below.

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