The explanation seems simple enough: With Tennessee struggling to make plays on first down and second down, why would third down be any different?
"We haven't executed as well as we need to as a whole," first-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson noted this week, "and that's part of it."
That's only a small part of it, however. A closer examination reveals that the Vols have been reasonably productive on first down.
For instance, consider these first-down plays from last weekend's 14-12 loss at Auburn:
- Lennon Creer gains 7 yards. UT converts on second and three.
- Montario Hardesty gains 15 yards for a first down.
- Arian Foster gains 6 yards. UT converts on second and four.
- Foster run gains 11 yards for a first down.
- Pass to Luke Stocker gains 8 yards. Vols cannot convert on second and two or on third and three.
- Foster gains 6 yards. Sacked on second and four, UT cannot convert on third and eight.
- Pass to Lucas Taylor gains 6 yards. Vols convert on second and four thanks to offsides penalty.
- Creer gains 4 yards. Vols cannot convert on second and six or third and six.
- Hardesty gains 6 yards. Vols cannot convert on second and four or third and four.
The fact is, Games 1-4 saw Tennessee routinely pick up four, five, six, seven, eight and even nine yards on first down only to squander many of those series with poor plays on second and third down.
"We've done a good job on first down – had a good mix of run and pass," Clawson conceded. "But whenever we get in obvious situations one way or the other (running on third-and-short or passing on third-and-long) we're not executing as well as we need to."
Obvious passing situations are difficult for any offense. As Clawson noted: "Third-and-eight, third-and-nine ... those are tough at any level. But when you have those third-and-six or less, you have to convert half of those and keep drives alive."
Those third-and-six or less opportunities are killing Tennessee this fall. The Vols should be doing a lot better than they are in such situations.
"We've had some makable third downs that we haven't executed on," Clawson conceded. "Third-and-four, third-and-three, third-and-two are downs you need to convert more often than not."
To date, the Vols have not converted third-and-short on a consistent basis. And, until they improve on "the money down," they'll never enjoy any offensive prosperity.