The Vols have outscored their first six opponents 37-7 in the third period, a stat which suggests the Big Orange brain trust is making some spot-on adjustments during the halftime break.
“I think it’s being able to adjust and I also think it’s a tribute to the kids’ ability to take the halftime adjustments and apply them to the game,” head coach Butch Jones told InsideTennessee. “We’ve had some situations during the course of games where we had to make some quick adjustments and, again, they were able to adapt and adjust. It’s just making plays.”
The fact Tennessee’s defense has limited its first six opponents to a combined seven third-quarter points is truly remarkable.
“Whatever they were doing good in the first half we try to make sure we take those plays away from them,” linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said. “We always want to try and make them play left-handed – take their best plays away from them and make them adjust. Usually, the things that were successful for them in the first and second quarter are not going to be successful in the third quarter.”
Although all of Tennessee’s coaches share ideas at halftime, Thigpen credits this knack for lock-down defense in the third period to Jones and defensive coordinator John Jancek.
“That goes to Jancek and Butch,” Thigpen said. “We come in at halftime and say, ‘Let’s take the top 10 things they were successful with, and let’s fix it right quick.’ And ‘What did we do well? Let’s keep utilizing that.’
“Jancek is really creative with blitzes and changing some things in the secondary that need to be changed, as far as fits or coverage. That (credit) goes to Jancek and to Butch for making sure we’ve got all of those things corrected.”
Whereas Tennessee is unusually strong in the third quarter, the Vols are unusually weak in the fourth quarter. They allowed 14 fourth-quarter points in a 35-32 loss at Georgia and allowed Florida to score all 10 of its points in the fourth quarter of a 10-9 Gator victory one week later. All told, Tennessee has allowed 52 fourth-quarter points through six games. Incredibly, that’s 45 more than it has surrendered in the third period.
To be fair, it should be noted that Tennessee’s defense was on the sidelines when 14 of those 52 fourth-quarter points were scored. Justin Worley threw a pick-six that gave Oklahoma seven points in the final period of Game 3 and Jalen Hurd fumbled in his own end zone to give Georgia seven in the closing stanza of Game 4.
Even if you discount those defensive scores, however, Tennessee has allowed 38 fourth-quarter points, compared to 7 third-quarter points. One possible explanation: The Vol defense is vulnerable in the fourth quarter because of fatigue.
“I think some games it (fourth-quarter fade) is a by-product of our lack of depth,” Jones said. “Obviously, we’re working to improve there. I think it’s a combination of them making a play or two and our lack of depth.”
“The fourth quarter is just making sure they’re fresh,” Thigpen conceded. “That’s why we’ve got to get two more guys out there in the third and fourth quarter … so A.J. and Maybin don’t get burned out.”
Defensive coordinator John Jancek is unsure that playing so many snaps has hampered Johnson and Maybin to date but readily admits that it could happen if their iron-man routines continue.
“I think over time you see it build up when you’re playing 80, 90 snaps a game, including special teams,” Jancek said. “Those hits—the wear and tear on your body—add up. But they do a great job after practice of getting in the recovery cold tubs, eating right and getting the proper rest, which is huge.”
Still, Johnson and Maybin probably would benefit from getting a few breathers during the course of a game. So, why don’t they? Basically, the drop-off in production when they leave the lineup is just too significant.
“We’re in a situation right now where those guys have to play that many reps,” Jancek said. “We’re working toward developing depth.”
"I think it’s a combination of them making a play or two and our lack of depth." —Butch Jones
That day can’t arrive too soon for Thigpen, who admits that weary defenders may have cost Tennessee a game earlier this season.
“That’s what we missed out on in the Georgia game,” he said. “We got tired in the latter part of the fourth quarter and our fundamentals kind of went slack.”
On a positive note, Johnson and Maybin are more rested than usual after sitting out a good portion of last Saturday’s 45-10 defeat of Chattanooga.
"It feels good to play a little bit less snaps,” Maybin conceded. “My body feels a lot better … but you're always going to be kind of beat up throughout the season. Even going through practice, you're going to get some bruises here and there. But it's definitely good to get off the field and kind of rest a little bit."
Johnson, conversely, seems oblivious to fatigue, regardless of how many snaps he plays.
“It doesn't matter to me; I feel good every week,” he said. “I can play 80 snaps or 40 snaps. I'm always ready to go.”
Another of Tennessee’s busiest defenders is sophomore Cameron Sutton, who plays virtually every snap at cornerback and doubles as the Vols’ No. 1 punt returner. He is reluctant to use fatigue as an excuse for the team’s fourth-quarter fades, however.
“The key is just finishing out games,” he said. “When we have our leads on teams we have to do a better job of finishing those games and protecting our leads.”
One thing is for certain: If the Vols ever figure out a way to play the fourth quarter as effectively as they play the third the remaining opponents are in big trouble.
Here’s a look at the score by quarters for Tennessee and its first six opponents:
Tennessee 41 51 37 39 — 168
Opponent 26 30 7 52 — 115
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