The Vols rolled up 95 snaps, 645 yards and 45 points at South Carolina last time out with an up-tempo offense designed to exhaust opposing defenses. Kentucky’s defense already appears exhausted, playing for the eighth time in eight weeks and coming off a game in which it surrendered nine touchdowns to Georgia.
Clearly, if Tennessee’s tempo clicks as it did in Game 9 at Columbia the Wildcats’ weary defenders could be in deep trouble.
“Tempo is going to be very important,” Vol receiver Alton Howard told InsideTennessee. “Being this is their eighth straight game, the tempo is going to take a toll. If you’re not conditioned for going that number of plays on the road it’s going to be wear and tear on you.”
Inflicting “wear and tear” is the plan each time Tennessee’s offense takes the field. The faster the Vols play, the faster the opposing defense wilts.
“We pride ourselves on that,” quarterback Joshua Dobbs said. “We call ourselves ‘The Fast And Furious.’ Obviously, tempo is a big part of being fast. Getting sub-20 second snaps is our goal. We push the tempo a lot. We might slow it down a little for third down but our goal is to push the tempo. If we do that we’ll be able to sustain drives and put up points.”
The hurry-up mode certainly worked in Tennessee’s 45-42 overtime win at South Carolina.
“We were able to get into a rhythm,” head coach Butch Jones said. “We had some big splash plays but first and second down are critical. Then we did some good things on third downs in critical situations, as well.”
Receivers coach Zach Azzanni touched on the same theme, noting: “It’s a lot easier to stay in a rhythm when you’re getting first downs, and we had 35 first downs against South Carolina. When you’re getting first downs you can go faster and stay in a rhythm. When it’s first, second, then third-and-long and you get off the field it just stalls you. First downs are the key.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian installed the up-tempo attack last fall but the 2013 Vols averaged a pedestrian 67 snaps per game. This year the average is up to 77 snaps per game.
“We’ve placed an emphasis on tempo all year long,” Bajakian said. “Since Game 1 we’ve improved from last year. To have over 100 snaps (counting plays nullified by penalty) obviously means tempo’s been really good but it also means we’re productive.”
Like Jones, Bajakian thought Tennessee’s success on the early downs paved the way for the offensive explosion at South Carolina.
“We’re gaining first downs on early downs – like first and second downs – and we’re efficient on third down,” Bajakian told IT. “To get that many snaps is more an illustration that we were able to sustain drives than necessarily move fast. When you can couple moving fast with executing, that’s when you’re able to accumulate plays like that.”
A fast pace clearly helps Vol running back Jalen Hurd, who posted season highs for rushing yards (125), receptions (7) and receiving yards (58) at South Carolina.
“If we can play at a high speed and get those big guys up front and those linebackers tired it’s to our advantage,” running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. “We stress all the time about being ready for the next big run. I think that’s helped us this year in terms of explosive plays.”
“If my first-team guy’s in the game two or three plays in a row, then I sub him out and bring the No. 2 guy in fresh – and the defense hasn’t substituted – that guy can break a long run,” Gillespie said. “If you look around college football that’s what you see: The teams that have depth – the Alabamas of the world – pound you with one guy, then the next guy takes one for 50 yards because they’ve worn the defense out with a high tempo.”
It’s no secret that the sudden improvement in Tennessee’s tempo coincided with the insertion of Joshua Dobbs at quarterback. His mobility has enabled the Vols to convert more third downs and extend more drives. That means more snaps per possession.
“Dobbs has a sense of urgency in getting everyone lined up,” Howard said. “Dobbs is an explosive player with his legs. He’s able to make big plays and make defenses shift due to our ability to run the ball. I think that’s impacted our play all-around. As far as our play-calling, you can call a lot with an athletic quarterback like Dobbs. I think there’s more that Bajakian can call, as far as having a read option with Dobbs.”
How much credit Dobbs deserves for the improved tempo is debatable but this much is not: The importance of tempo in Tennessee’s offense cannot be overstated.
“Tempo is how our offense lives. It’s how we breathe,” senior offensive tackle Jacob Gilliam said. “Everything we do should be based on tempo and wearing guys down. That’s something we really focus on and it’s something that went really well at South Carolina.”
If the tempo goes equally well Saturday against Kentucky … well, the scoreboard operator could be in for a busy afternoon.
A.J. Johnson talks Wildcats