Third-down D

Tennessee football fans have been grumbling for years about the Vols' inability to stop opponents on third-and-long situations. That wasn't the case earlier this year, though. Fans were griping about the Vols' inability to stop foes on third-and-anything.

Air Force converted nine of 13 third-down opportunities in Game 2. Florida converted six of 13 in Game 3 and Marshall six of 15 in Game 4. Georgia converted four of four in the first half of Game 6.

Since then, however, Tennessee's third-down defense has been virtually impregnable. The Vols limited the Bulldogs to one of six second-half conversion attempts, then limited Alabama to three of 15 in Game 7.

For those keeping score at home, UT has allowed opponents to convert on just four of the past 21 third-down opportunities – a paltry 19 percent success rate.

Tennessee's third-down defense will be severely tested tonight in Columbia, however. South Carolina converted eight of 11 third-down tries in last weekend's 31-13 blowout of Vanderbilt. The Gamecocks are converting at a 55-percent clip since Syvelle Newton replaced Blake Mitchell as the starting quarterback in Game 4.

So, what caused the dramatic change in Tennessee's third-down defense since the first half of the Georgia game? Apparently, it was desperation ... and a butt-chewing from defensive coordinator John Chavis.

"We were down at Georgia. That was our season pretty much going down the drain," senior linebacker Marvin Mitchell recalls. "Coach got on us very hard ... VERY hard. Guys stepped up and took the challenge, so we could get the win. When you have the mindset of ‘Hey, we're going to get this stop on third down ... it's time to get off the field,' I think that makes you much better as a defense."

In addition, the Vols may have needed some time to regroup – mentally, as well as physically – after losing starting tackle Justin Harrell and starting cornerback Inquoris Johnson to season-ending injuries in Game 2.

"That's probably a little bit of it," Mitchell conceded. "With new guys coming in, we were getting used to each other and knowing you can trust a guy ... he's going to be there."

Junior safety Jonathan Hefney thinks a large part of UT's third-down success against Bama last weekend could be traced to success on the previous two downs.

"We stopped ‘em on first down pretty good, and that helped us out," Hefney said. "The down-and-distance was a whole lot larger than what anybody usually has, and that helped us out a whole bunch."

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