Finishing fades

Whatever the Tennessee Football Vols are doing at halftime, they need to stop it. No matter how well the Big Orange plays in the first two quarters, it tends to implode in the last two.

Through their first eight games the Vols have outscored the opposition 72-65 in the first quarter and 93-65 in the second period. However, Tennessee has been outscored 54-48 in the third quarter and by a whopping 69-34 margin in the fourth quarter.

This alarming trend has been particularly apparent in three of the Vols' key Southeastern Conference games.

To wit:

- Florida outscored Tennessee 31-7 in the second half on Sept. 15, turning a 28-13 lead into a 59-20 blowout.

- Alabama outscored Tennessee 17-0 in the second half on Oct. 20, turning a 24-17 advantage into a 41-17 romp.

- South Carolina outscored Tennessee 24-3 in the second half Saturday night, turning a 21-0 deficit into a 24-24 tie. The Vols saved face by winning 27-24 in overtime.

For those keeping score at home, the Big Orange was outscored by a cumulative total of 72-10 in the second half of those three crucial conference games. That's an average margin of 24-3 per game ... which is precisely what the second-half margin was against South Carolina.

In the losses at Florida and Alabama, Tennessee's players appeared to shut down when the home team seized the momentum. A Gator fumble return for touchdown ignited a run of 31 unanswered points. A Tide interception set off a 17-0 closing kick.

The finishing fades in Gainesville and Tuscaloosa suggest the Vols can't handle adversity on the road. The finishing fade Saturday night in Knoxville suggests the Vold can't handle prosperity at home, either. They seemed to lose their focus after building a 21-0 halftime lead.

Senior quarterback Erik Ainge conceded that "it's tough" to maintain an emotional edge after such a blazing start. Still, he says Tennessee didn't stop being aggressive in its play-calling vs. the Gamecocks. The plays it called just stopped working.

"Sometimes when you get ahead you call things that should work," he said. "A lot of the things we called we just got unlucky. That may be a credit to their (Gamecocks') defensive coordinator more than anything."

Regardless, a comparison of yardage totals underscores that Tennessee followed up a tremendous first-half performance with a horrendous second-half performance. After outgaining Carolina 205-146 yards in the 30 minutes, the Vols were outgained 355-112 over the final two quarters.

Still, Ainge insists the Vols did nothing differently in the second half.

"We'd call our screens or our deep-ball shots or our special plays," he said. "And every time we'd call it they'd call the one defense that we didn't want 'em to call. I credit their defensive coordinator a lot."

Apparently, the defensive coordinators for Florida and Alabama got smarter in the second half, as well.

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