Bounce-back time for Vol 'D'

A secondary that had allowed just 265 passing yards in the first three games allowed 319 in Game 4. A front seven that registered 10 sacks in the first three games recorded none in Game 4.

That raises the question: Was the performance of Tennessee's defense in last Saturday's 34-23 defeat of Ohio a harmless fluke or cause for alarm?

Fans should find out Saturday night at Neyland Stadium, when a prolific Auburn offense will provide Tennessee's defense with its sternest test to date.

This much is for certain: If the Vol stop unit plays as poorly this Saturday night as it did last Saturday night, Auburn could match its 45 points-per-game scoring average.

It must be noted that, even on its worst day, Tennessee's defense scored a touchdown against Ohio U - end Chris Walker intercepting a screen pass and scoring from seven yards out. But the Vols got no pass rush from their front seven and got no interceptions from their secondary. As a result, the visiting Bobcats completed 30 of 52 passes and average nearly 11 yards per completion.

"We had an interception on a screen pass by a defensive end," Vol head coach Lane Kiffin noted. "But for a team to throw the ball 52 times and have no sacks and no interceptions by your back seven, it's disappointing. We've put a big emphasis on that this week and we need to improve a lot."

There were some mitigating factors in last Saturday night's slipshod defensive effort. Walker (sore back) and tackle Wes Brown (knees) were limited by injuries. That, in turn, limited UT's pass rush.

"Chris and Wes are both undersized pass-rush guys, so that's going to affect your pass rush when they come out," Kiffin said. "We've got to get back to getting up the field on third down, like we were the first two games."

Another factor that had a negative impact on Tennessee's Game 4 defensive effort was the absence of defensive back Dennis Rogan, who missed the game due to an administrative suspension. A versatile Vol, he started Game 1 at free safety, Games 2 and 3 at left cornerback.

"Dennis has played extremely well for us," Kiffin said. "He plays both spots, so it's almost like you had to replace two players. We replaced him with Brent (Vinson) at one point and at safety we replaced him with Darren (Myles), a true freshman."

Although Vinson and Myles are bigger and more athletic than the 5-10, 178-pound Rogan, they lack his instincts and experience. Thus, the secondary isn't quite as tenacious when he isn't in the lineup.

"There is a difference there," Kiffin conceded. "That's why Dennis is one of the best players on our team."

Tennessee succeeded last weekend in shutting down Ohio's running game (21 yards on 17 carries) and forcing the Bobcats to be one-dimensional. The Vols just didn't expect that one dimension to produce 319 passing yards.

"We've got to play a lot better than we did," Kiffin said. "We had blown assignments. We had a bunch of new people in there that didn't produce the way we needed 'em to.

"Whoever's in there needs to play just like the starters do. We were shuffling people around with injuries and we just didn't make enough plays."

That shuffling continues. With middle linebacker Nick Reveiz out for the year, and Walker and Brown still limited, the Vols could be playing a bunch of new faces on defense again this week.

"We obviously have a lot of injuries on defense," Kiffin said. "We're going to need a lot of people to step up their play in this game."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories