Third-down woes

College football coaches like to call third down "the money down." That being the case, Tennessee's stock obviously is on the decline. The Vols' third-down efficiency has nosedived in recent weeks.

After converting on 44 of 74 third-down opportunities (59.4 percent) during the first six games of 2006, the Big Orange has succeeded on just 21 of 61 (34.4 percent) over the past five games.

Here's a game-by-game look at the first six outings:

California (5 of 11), Air Force (9 of 11), Florida (6 of 13), Marshall (6 of 11), Memphis (11 of 16), Georgia (7 of 12).

Now look at the slippage that occurred over the past five games:

Alabama (6 of 15), South Carolina (3 of 9), LSU (5 of 13), Arkansas (4 of 13), Vanderbilt (3 of 11).

Surprisingly enough, Tennessee's third-down efficiency bottomed out in last weekend's 39-10 blowout of Vanderbilt. The Big Orange recorded a paltry 27.3 percent success rate.

Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe blamed that number on "our inabilities," adding that Tennessee has stopped itself on third down far too often in recent weeks.

Against Vandy, for instance, he recalled a third-and-two play which saw the Vols line up in the wrong formation, then run the play in the wrong direction.

"That's not executing," he said.

Lack of execution was a common theme vs. Vandy, even though the Vols piled up 39 points.

"I thought we missed a couple of reads that should've been easy first downs," Cutcliffe said. "Then we had a short-yardage play where we got whipped at the line of scrimmage. When I went back and looked at it (on tape), just a good team doing what you're supposed to be doing, we should've been eight of 11 on third downs in the Vanderbilt game.

"I was really disappointed in our execution. In the other games it's been pretty much the same story."

Cutcliffe is not happy with UT's 34-percent third-down efficiency over the past five games. In fact, he is quite unhappy with it.

"That's one of the things, to be honest with you, that I'm a little irritated about," he said. "I expect us to be better. We're not going to function at that level. We're going to be better than that because we're capable of being better than that."

A botched play on first down can be overcome. So can a botched play on second down. A botched play on third down, however, almost invariably forces a team to surrender the football. Thus, third-down performance is crucial in most games.

"That's how you stay on the field," Cutcliffe said. "You don't know what the next play may bring. If you make a first down there, we may score a touchdown on the next play. That's the next play that never happened. That's the way I view it.

"I don't like coming off the field, and I hope these players don't either."

The good news: Tennessee's third-down efficiency should get healthy this Saturday against a Kentucky defense that ranks dead last in all of NCAA Div. 1.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories