The Vols' defensive depth was thin entering the season, and the recent loss of tackle Justin Harrell and cornerback Inquoris Johnson has thinned it even more. Fewer players means more reps for the starters, which usually means more fatigue and more late-game points surrendered.
Head coach Phillip Fulmer believes he has a solution to the problem, however.
"We've got to get more people taking reps," he said on his Sunday teleconference. "That's one of the things we've been talking about. More guys have got to step up."
California scored 15 fourth-quarter points on Tennessee in Game 1 but, leading 35-3 after three periods, the Vols were using mostly second-teamers at the finish.
"The Cal game we tried to play a lot of folks in the fourth quarter, and that was part of the points they gave up," Fulmer said.
The head man had no such explanation for the fact Air Force hung two touchdowns on Tennessee in the final seven minutes of Game 2.
"The fourth quarter of the (Air Force) game is not what we wanted," Fulmer grumbled.
The Vols suffered another late lapse Saturday night in Game 3, and this one led to their first loss of the season. Florida scored two touchdowns in the game's final 20 minutes, turning a 17-7 deficit into a 21-20 victory.
"This game," Fulmer said, "it bit us in the rear."
Tennessee's recent problems stopping foes in obvious passing situations surfaced again Saturday night, as well. Florida completed a 13-yard pass on a third-and-11 and completed a 37-yarder on a second-and-22 situation.
"Defensively, we've got to get ourselves off the field more," Fulmer said. "When you've got a second-and-22 and give up a 37-yard play, that's not our kind of defense. And we had a couple of chances on fourth down to get ‘em stopped and didn't do that, either."
Still, the head man noted that Tennessee's offense needs to do a better job maintaining possession, so the defense isn't facing so much pressure at the end of games. He believes the attack unit and the stop unit share the blame for the late lapses that have led to several losses the past two seasons.
"It's both," Fulmer said. "Both have to be accountable – the offense not giving it up to the other side, particularly in field position that would hurt you, and the defense not giving up chunks of yards, particularly on third down."