Back to basics

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Tennessee played its best game of 2013 after an open date, shocking No. 11 South Carolina 23-21. That raises the question: Was the open date a contributing factor or just a coincidence?

Answer: It was a contributing factor. That's because Tennessee used the bye week to get back to fundamental football – blocking, tackling and covering.

The Vols blocked well against a potent South Carolina defense, finishing with 146 rushing yards and only one sack allowed. The Vols also tackled well against the Gamecocks, limiting SEC rushing leader Mike Davis to a manageable 137 yards. Moreover, the Vols covered the best they have all season, allowing Connor Shaw just 7 completions in 21 attempts.

Result: Playing fundamental football, Tennessee posted its most significant win in four years, a 23-21 upset of a ranked foe.

Unfortunately for Vol Nation, the Big Orange got away from fundamental football in recent weeks – losing 45-10 at Alabama 31-3 at Missouri and 55-23 to Auburn. The Vols didn't block anybody, they didn't tackle anybody and they didn't cover anybody.

Fortunately for Tennessee, the schedule features a bye this week. And the Big Orange is using this bye week the same way it used the one prior to South Carolina … to get back to the basics.

"Oh, definitely. I spend 20-30 minutes a day on that," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. "What happens is, as the season goes, the attention to detail (slips). We have to get back to the finest detail: Put your hands and your eyes where they're supposed to be."

Defensive coordinator John Jancek added a hearty amen to that. Vol defenders apparently forgot how to shed blocks and tackle since the South Carolina game. They're getting a much-needed refresher course this week.

"Oh, shoot, yeah. We're tackling live. We're tackling to the ground," Jancek said. "We've got to get better. All of our fundamentals we're trying to address in this bye week."

Fundamentals produce more than better blocking, tackling and covering, however. They also result in better pass rushing. Coming off the previous open date, Tennessee sacked South Carolina's Shaw four times. The Vols have recorded just one sack in the three games since, so that's another issue being addressed during the bye week.

"It gives you an opportunity to work on tackling and fundamentals because you're not preparing as much for your opponent (with kickoff more than a week away)," Jancek said. "There are some basic concepts you want to work on, so it does give me an opportunity to work on some of the fundamentals."

Vols defensive line coach Steve Stripling says his unit practices tackling consistently.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
No Vol should benefit more from the open date than freshman quarterback Joshua Dobbs. Elevated from third-team to first-team status when Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman suffered midseason injuries, he was thrust into the starting lineup in Game 9 at Missouri with minimal preparation. After two weeks of on-the-job training, he is spending this week painstakingly evaluating what he has done so far and what adjustments need to be made.

"It's huge," Dobbs said of the bye week. "I can go in and focus on film by myself. It's also huge in getting a jumpstart on Vandy. Every day we have coming up is an advantage for us."

Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian agrees that this open date represents a golden opportunity for Dobbs.

"It provides more reps and preparation for our next opponent," the Vol aide said. "That's always valuable. He's been able to get a head start on the pressures and coverages he'll see, so that gives us a little more time to prep, which is important."

Naturally, the open-date week gives Tennessee time to heal some injured bodies. Coming off three blowout losses in a row, Tennessee also can use this week to heal its injured psyche.

"I feel we're still mentally tough but we're hurting a little bit from these losses," senior running back Rajion Neal said. "With the work we've put in, we feel we deserve more, and it hurts. It hurts more when you work hard and you're really giving what you can to go out there and get a win.

"I think it (bye) is coming at the perfect time – giving us a chance to go back to the drawing board. This will let us get back to a little more sound fundamental football."

Tennessee looked like a tired team last weekend against Auburn, which seemed two steps faster at virtually every position. Neal wouldn't concede that point, however, noting: "I think we're just going through a little rough patch that we've got to find our way out of."

That "little rough patch" has seen the last three opponents outscore Tennessee 131-36.

Senior defensive lineman Daniel Hood is glad the Vols are getting back to basics this bye week, just as they did during the bye week prior to the South Carolina game.

"I think it helped a lot because it was the same thing: You get your work done. You practice the little things – your leverage, your hands, basically what we call the inches of the game," Hood said. "You practice those little things, and that turned out to help us a lot in the South Carolina game."

Tennessee's head coach admits that the Vols got back to basics during the pre-South Carolina bye week and are doing the same this time.

"I know we went back and practiced the fine details and the fundamentals, which we're doing this week," Butch Jones said. "Any time you have an open week (the key) is how you approach that week: It's your mindset and how you attack it.

"Some teams I've been a part of shut it down, and you can't do that. There's still an opportunity to improve. We have to get our health back. We have to get our mindset back. We have to push the reset button. There are a lot of things that are going into this open week."

Getting back to fundamentals being first and foremost.


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