Florida converted only 3-of-15 third downs against Tennessee in a game the defense was able to control for three quarters. But when it came to stopping the Gators on fourth down, the Vols collapsed, allowing five conversions on five attempts.
Butch Jones didn’t have a definitve answer for his team’s monumental struggles on fourth down. Sometimes, according to Jones, the team broke down in coverage. Others, Florida just made the play it needed to make to keep the chains moving.
"I think it is a combination of each fourth down play having a story of its own,” Jones said at his Monday press conference. “There was one play where they threw the ball to the tight end and our players were in the perfect coverage and our defender is right there. It's a quarterback throwing the ball on his back leg and a player making a great play on the ball in the air, and you couldn't defend it any better.
“On the fourth and long, we were supposed to be robbing the dig area, and we looked the wrong way … and they were able to capitalize on that. The completion is made, we need to rally and get the ball down and force them, I believe, 20 yards to go.”
Opponents are now 9-of-10 on the season against Tennessee on fourth down — a 90 percent conversion rate. Last season the Vols were No. 24 in the country in stopping opponents on fourth down, but this year that ranking has plummeted to No. 124. It’s even more shocking due to the fact that Jones’ defense is one of the best in the country at stopping opponents on third down. Teams are only converting on third down against the Vols 26 percent of the time, yet on fourth down, they're nearly perfect through four games.
“I think it was a combination of little things: eye discipline, understanding the situation, what they are going to run,” Jones said. “That's the thing. We did such a great job to generate those fourth down plays. We did a great job on third down. Now we need to capitalize from what we did on third down to fourth down, and we will continue to work on that."
Passing on passingTennessee’s air attack failed to really get off the runway Saturday, as the Vols only threw the ball 17 times for 83 yards. Part of that had to do with a stingy Florida secondary that boasts a potential All-America cornerback in Vernon Hargreaves III, but another reason hinged in part on the early success of the run game.
Led by quarterback Josh Dobbs, the Vols rushed for 254 yards on a Gator defense that was giving up less than 60 yards a game on the ground going into Saturday's contest.
“I think right now, it’s just our running game is really working, so that’s why we’re using it,” left tackle Kyler Kerbyson said. “We had a 17-play drive (against Florida) where 80-90 percent of the plays were runs and it worked. We wasted ten minutes of the clock doing that, so why wouldn’t you go back to it? That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Tennessee averages a whopping 248 rushing yards a game — good for No. 18 in the country — but the Vols are 11th in the SEC in passing yards per game with 183. Despite those low numbers, though, Jones said he still has confidence in what the passing attack can do when called upon as he looks to improve his team’s numbers in the air.
"We want to be able to throw the ball more down the field. That's really a big part of us offensively,” Jones said. “I can tell you this: everyone wants to look to the receivers and the quarterback. It takes all 11 individuals working together. Sometimes we have those plays called and we don't get them off one way shape, form or another. It's not just the offensive line either. It's 11 individuals working together as one, but we take great pride in our passing game. We want to be a receiver-oriented offense.”
Eight different players caught a pass Saturday, but the team’s leading receiver was quarterback Josh Dobbs, who hauled in a double pass from receiver Jauan Jennings for a 58-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Preston Williams, Marquez North, Josh Malone and Von Pearson combined for zero catches in the loss.
Jones took plenty of criticism from fans and media members for some of his decision-making in the 28-27 loss to Florida. The third-year Vols coach declined two penalties that would have backed the Gators up and decided not to go for a two-point conversion up 12 with 10:19 remaining in the game.
Despite those controversial moves, Jones did not backtrack on his decisions and told reporters he feels he put his team in a position to win the game.
"I do (think we coached well enough to win the game.) I think we all did,” Jones said. “Again, it's one or two plays. We are two plays, or 10 seconds, away from being 4-0, but we are 2-2. We can't let two plays or 10 seconds define who we are. We have to continue to work and grind. I thought our coaching staff had a great plan going in.”