Butch Jones likes to say he takes the emotion out of the equation when he analyzes his football team. After taking a look at his team’s sputtering offensive production in the second half of games and the continued struggle to form a consistent passing attack, Jones’ emotionless response is simple: longer plays at opportunistic times.
“When you look at us offensively, we need to have more splash plays,” Jones said. “We need to have more big plays. It's hard to play perfect in this conference. It's hard to drive the ball for an extended period of plays or length without big plays. We need to manufacture more big plays.”
The Vols have lacked in this department all year. Tennessee has completed just 19 plays of 20 yards or more from scrimmage, good for next-to-last in the SEC behind Auburn. When it comes to just passing plays, those numbers get even worse. Tennessee is tied for No. 12 in the SEC with Missouri in passing plays of 10 yards or more with 35 through five games.
“Obviously, sometimes it’s schemes based on what you're seeing, because each week is a new challenge — not just from personnel, but the different personnel you're going to see,” Jones said. “So it puts different individuals on one-on-one matchups. Football is a game made up of one-on-one matchups across the board. Every position group is a one-on-one matchup.”
Tennessee has failed to win those one-on-one matchups down the stretch, contributing to three double-digit blown leads on the year.
But for as much as Jones’ offense has struggled throwing the football long distances, the run game has seen more than its share of success. Tennessee currently sits at No. 3 in the SEC in long rushing plays with 35 runs of 10 yards or more. Led by sophomore bruiser Jalen Hurd, offensive coordinator Mike DeBord's unit has notched seven runs of 20 yards or more and five of 30 yards or more on the young season. The Vols are also just one of six teams in the SEC to have a rush of more than 60 yards.
When coupled with the passing game, however, those numbers combine for a grim picture Jones knows he must improve as SEC play intensifies. The momentum-generating splash plays in the air have to start matching those on the ground for Tennessee to find some semblance of a balanced attack while helping close out games in which it has squandered multiple touchdown leads.
“You look at all big games or great wins and you point to a moment in that game where someone steps up and makes a play,” Jones said. “That's what we spoke to our football team about: making plays at critical moments in the game and wanting to be that guy who wants the ball in his hands or wants the ball thrown at him.”