Like a competitive diver, Tennessee’s defense will spend Saturday afternoon trying to limit splashes.
After allowing a mere 21 “splash plays” of 20 yards or more in the first seven games, Vol defenders surrendered a whopping 19 in the past two games. Game 8 foe Alabama posted three rushes and four passes of 20 yards or more en route to 34 points, then Game 9 foe South Carolina recorded seven rushes and five passes of 20 yards or more en route to 42 points.
Tennessee had better plug the leaks in its defense this weekend at Neyland Stadium because Kentucky has a dynamic offense that thrives on big plays.
“It’s absolutely important,” Vol defensive line coach Steve Stripling told InsideTennessee. “If you look at their Mississippi State game they (scores) were all big plays. Mississippi State was really sound except for the big plays they gave up.”
That’s true. Kentucky hung with the top-ranked Bulldogs thanks to splash plays. Quarterback Patrick Towles completed touchdown passes of 67 and 58 yards, plus non-scoring passes of 55, 23 and 21 yards. Towles also contributed a 48-yard run. All told, 272 of Kentucky’s 504 total yards that day came on six big plays.
“Really, it was like our South Carolina game,” Stripling said. “That’s beating yourself when you make mistakes like that and give up big plays. Not taking anything away from offenses, but if you’re in position to make plays you’ve got to make ‘em. A lot of it’s the mental aspect – being sound – and a lot of it’s the ability to get ‘em down.”
Tennessee was nowhere near sound, mentally or physically, the past two games. That’s why Alabama and South Carolina combined to gash Big Orange defenders for 1,094 yards.
Blake Sims completed an 80-yard touchdown pass on Bama’s opening scrimmage play, later connecting on throws of 21, 41 and 30 yards. The Tide also had a pair of 28-yard touchdown runs and a 20-yard non-scoring run. South Carolina was more of the same, as Tennessee surrendered pass completions of 85, 34, 30, 26, 25, 22 and 21 yards, plus runs of 70, 32, 23, 20 and 20 yards.
“To play great defense you can’t give up big plays,” secondary coach Willie Martinez told InsideTennessee. “It’s very difficult for an offense to do a 12- or 14-play drive, so the key is forcing them to execute.”
When asked to explain the sudden rash of big plays by Big Orange opponents, defensive coordinator John Jancek replied: “It’s always a combination of things. Sometimes it’s poor technique. Sometimes it’s a really good call by an offense against an area of weakness in a defense; those are certainly going to happen in a game. Some are missed tackles. Some of them are mistakes and busts on our end. We look at ‘em and categorize ‘em and continue to work to eliminate them.”
Vol coaches hope they eliminated some of the big-play woes at the end of the South Carolina game. Tennessee forced a three-and-out on the Gamecocks’ final possession of regulation and another on their only possession of overtime, enabling the Big Orange to rally from a 42-28 deficit and win 45-42.
“When we executed the defense (at game’s end) the same calls and same plays that hurt us earlier in the game failed,” Martinez said. “We got a sack. We got a stop. We helped our team win the game.”
Vol defensive tackle Jordan Williams thinks fatigue was a factor in the poor showings against Bama and South Carolina. If so, last week’s open date should help.
“Maybe it was the season wearing on us a little bit,” he said. “The bye week came just in time. I think we’re feeling a little bit better.”
The fact Alabama hit an 80-yard touchdown pass on its first scrimmage play seemed to shake the Vols’ confidence.
“We’ve been working on getting that swagger back,” nose tackle Danny O’Brien said. “That’s why we were such a good defense the first half of the year. We’ve got to bring that back, and we will.”
No area of Tennessee’s defense has been more susceptible to the sudden rash of big plays than the secondary. It has surrendered 11 completions of 20 yards or more the past two games, including touchdown hookups of 85 and 80 yards.
“Communication allows big plays,” cornerback Cameron Sutton told IT. “That’s a big part of it. When we’re communicating and we’re all on the same page, it’s tough to get anything on us.”
Junior safety Brian Randolph echoed that sentiment, noting: “Probably communication was the biggest problem, especially the Alabama game. We started off slow because we didn’t communicate. That definitely was our emphasis in practice this week – getting everybody lined up and being on the right side of the ball.”
These items may seem simple but they can be the difference between a two-yard gain and six points against a team as explosive as Kentucky.
“It’s very, very, very critical,” defensive end Corey Vereen said. “They’ve got a lot of explosive players at wide receiver, so it’s going to be a very big key to keep explosive plays to a minimum.”
Asked how this Kentucky offense compares to last year’s, Vereen replied: “Oh, it’s night and day. From their wide receivers to their running backs to their linemen, they’re a much better team from last year to this year. The quarterback is a pretty fast guy. He’s like Bo Wallace (of Ole Miss) but much faster. He’s got a little more juice to him.”
Kentucky has better runners and pass-catchers this fall, as well.
“Oh, yeah. They’ve definitely got some playmakers,” Randolph said. “All of their receivers can make the big play. They’ve got a couple of great running backs and an NFL quarterback. They’ve got a lot of motions and shifts in their schemes, so we’ve got to get ready for all of that.”
If the Vols are “ready for all of that,” they should be able to limit Kentucky’s big plays, square their record at 5-5 and move one step closer to qualifying for a bowl bid. If not, those sounds you hear emanating from Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon could be one splash after another.
Find out more about the Kentucky-Tennessee matchup by listening to Butch Jones after practice this week: