Finish what you start

A lot of college football games are won in the fourth quarter ... and a lot of them are lost in the fourth quarter. More often than not, the team that finishes strongest is the team that prevails.

And that's John Chavis' biggest concern as Tennessee's defensive coordinator prepares for Saturday's home opener vs. UAB. His troops played 48 superior minutes in Game 1 at UCLA, then collapsed as they approached the finish line. After limiting the Bruin offense to 138 yards and 3 points in the first 48 minutes, UT allowed 150 yards and 14 points in the final 12 minutes of regulation. That proved costly in a 27-24 overtime loss.

"Obviously, it's pretty clear we need to be able to finish," Chavis said this week. "We need to be able to play the last 10 minutes. We need to be able to play the last two minutes. We need to be productive in those situations and we need to be able to get off the field without giving up points."

There was a time when a seven-point Tennessee lead entering a game's closing minutes was like money in the bank. Not lately, though. The Vols have not been as successful protecting late-game leads in recent years.

"I'd probably say no, we probably haven't been," Chavis conceded. "We've certainly had our moments. During my career here there's been a lot of games here where we've gone out and got two or three stops in the last five minutes of ball games. We've had situations where we had to get three stops in the last five minutes. All we needed was one (vs. UCLA), and we didn't get that. That's an area we do need to improve."

Winning a football game – like winning an auto race – requires having some gas left in the tank at the finish. Tennessee defenders appeared to be running on fumes in the late stages of the UCLA game. That's a situation Chavis must correct in the coming weeks.

"Where it starts is keeping our guys fresh," he said, adding that several Vols "had been out there for 72 plays. The first ball game, that's a little difficult. We want to play more people early. That's what we've got to do. We've been good at that (through the years), in terms of developing depth."

The 2008 Vols are lacking depth in the front seven. Head coach Phillip Fulmer was so upset with the No. 2 defense following one preseason scrimmage that he said Tennessee would leave the starters on the field virtually the entire game before playing backups who weren't productive.

Apparently, that's pretty close to what happened in Game 1. The starters played so much – and the reserves so little – that the first-team defenders wilted during those final 12 minutes. Chavis promises that won't happen again. He plans to substitute early and often in the remaining games.

"When you play people early, they know they're going to play, so they work harder in practice," he said. "They're going to get ready. I think they improve a lot quicker when they know they're going to play."

Still, Chavis admits being reluctant to insert a suspect backup in place of a proven starter.

"We're going to have to pick and choose," he said. "A guy who's second team is second team for a reason but that doesn't mean he can't get to be as good as the guy in front of him. We're going to have to pick and choose but we are going to have to play more people. There's no question about that."

Tennessee's Game 1 depth was hurt by the fact reserve defensive tackle Donald Langley and reserve cornerback Brent Vinson were suspended. Making matters worse, first-team cornerback Dennis Rogan missed the second half with a pulled stomach muscle. All three are expected to play this weekend against UAB.

Even with Langley, Vinson and Rogan available for duty, though, Chavis needs to give more playing time to young Vols such as tackle Victor Thomas, ends Chris Walker and Ben Martin, linebackers Savion Frazier and Gerald Williams, defensive backs Daryl Vereen and Prentiss Waggner.

"I think it's important to get some of those younger kids some game experience and see how they're going to respond," Chavis said. "Some of them have played some but not nearly enough. When you start looking at playing at 12:30, the weather's going to be a factor, as far as keeping guys fresh for the fourth quarter."

Chavis' defenses generally perform at peak efficiency when the starters play around 50 snaps and the backups around 20.

"When we've been at our best we've been able to play two-deep, and that's where we're headed," he said. "It's going to be tough at some of those positions. It's tough to take an Eric Berry and some of those guys out of the game but we're going to have to rest those guys."

Except for wilting down the stretch, Tennessee's defense performed exceptionally well in Game 1. Chavis hopes to build on that foundation.

"Our guys played extremely hard, gave great effort," he recalled. "We really like the start we got in terms of tackling. It was probably one of our better games from that standpoint.

"But, obviously, we're in a situation where we need to be able to finish. We've worked on that in practice, and I think we'll be better at it."


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