Third-and-long blues

Incredibly, Tennessee's defense is more apt to stop an opponent on third-and-four than on third-and-14. If you've watched the Vols the past few years, you know this is painfully evident.

For some reason, Tennessee has great difficulty closing the deal once it gets opponents in obvious third-and-long passing situations.

Here's a recap of Alabama-Birmingham's third-and-long situations in Game 1:

Third and 11: Pass complete for 16 yards. First down.

Third and 18: Pass complete for 12 yards. Punt.

Third and 10: Pass complete for 6 yards. Punt.

Third and 15: Pass interference on Kevin Simon. First down.

And here's a recap of Florida's third-and-long situations in Game 2:

Third and 21: Sack for minus 6 yards. Punt.

Third and 16: Screen pass complete for no gain. Punt.

Third and 16: Pass complete for 13 yards. Field goal.

Third and 9: Chris Leak scrambles for 17 yards. First down.

Third and 16: Leak scrambles for one yard. Field goal.

Third and 18: Pass complete for 22 yards. First down.

Third and 11: Pass complete for 24 yards. First down.

Of the 11 times Tennessee opponents faced third-and-nine or worse, they converted five times and moved into field goal range with a 13-yard completion on another occasion. Clearly, Vol defenders work too hard getting opponents in difficult down-and-distance situations to let them off the hook so regularly.

Moreover, this is not a new development. Tennessee has struggled to stop opponents in third-and-long situations for several years

"Really, we've been having problems on third downs for a while here," senior linebacker Jason Mitchell said. "That's something we've got to take pride in – stopping people on third down so we can get off the field. First and second down have been our better downs but we've got to put more emphasis on third down and get back to where we need to be."

Asked why the defense is more likely to stop an opponent on third-and-four than on third-and-14 – when a pass obviously is forthcoming – Mitchell shrugged.

"I think this team relaxes for some reason," he said. "There should be more of an urgency. I don't know what it is. I wish I could tell you."

The most damaging third-and-longs to date were the two Florida converted in the fourth quarter of Saturday's game at Gainesville. The first occurred on third-and-18 at the Gator 35-yard line, when Leak hit Dallas Baker for 22 yards. The second occurred three plays later, on third-and-11 at Tennessee's 44. This time Leak hit Jemalle Cornelius for 24 yards. Those two big plays sustained the drive that produced Florida's game-clinching field goal in a 16-7 victory.

Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer said the third-and-18 completion was the result of "a call we made that obviously was to defend a longer pass, and they hit the slant underneath," adding that the negative outcome "was partly our (coaches') fault, not just the secondary's fault. That was disappointing."

And decisive.


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