Tennessee's defense surrendered a season-high 359 rushing yards against the Rebels. To put that in perspective, consider that the SECOND-WORST outing by the Vol stop unit was a 224-yard performance vs. Auburn. That was a loss, too.
Moreover, Tennessee's offense mustered a mere 99 rushing yards at Ole Miss. That would be a season-low except for a 76-yard output at Alabama. And, yes, that was a loss, as well.
The Vols clearly need to improve their ground attack as they prepare to close the regular season against a Vanderbilt team that ranks No. 7 nationally in pass defense (159.8 yards per game) and a Kentucky team that ranks No. 9 in the same category (165.6). Another performance as lame as the one against Ole Miss won't cut it.
"We did some decent things in the run game," head coach Lane Kiffin said. "The problem was, we lost more yards than we had in any game all season. Even though there were some productive runs in the game, there were so many critical second-and-shorts and third-and-shorts where we went backwards."
Indeed. Down 21-14 in the third quarter, Tennessee faced a second-and-3 at the Ole Miss 5-yard line. Montario Hardesty was dumped for a five-yard loss, however, and the Vols had to settle for a field goal.
On their very next possession the Vols advanced to a third-and-2 at the Ole Miss 35-yard line, only to have Hardesty dropped for a two-yard loss. A fourth-down pass fell incomplete, and UT came away with nothing.
Tennessee's next possession saw Hardesty stuffed for a two-yard loss on second-and-1, forcing the Vols to punt two plays later.
"We just got knocked back upfront," Kiffin noted. "That was a difficult matchup game for us."
Essentially, Saturday's loss was a feast-or-famine game for the Vol offense. It mustered touchdown drives of 51 and 70 yards in the first half but had far too many three-and-out possessions to beat a team as talented as Ole Miss.
"We had some production at times," Kiffin noted. "We were moving the ball at times but we put our defense in a bad situation because there were six or seven drives in that game where we went three-and-out. We're already playing a great running back (Dexter McCluster), then you put your defense right back out there, it's going to be hard to win the game."
Given so little rest, Tennessee's defense wilted, enabling Ole Miss to score three touchdowns in the game's final 17 minutes and romp 42-17. Kiffin believes the stop unit will bounce back in the weeks ahead.
"I reminded our staff 'Before you guys think we have to change everything; we're talking about one quarter and a half of really bad defense," the head man said. "Prior to that, we were on a streak where our No. 1 defense had given up just two touchdowns (in four games). It's not broke. We've just got to play better."
"It's been difficult," Kiffin conceded. "I can't mask that. I think we've had 21 scholarship players that are either out for the season or not on our team. Unless Commissioner (Mike) Slive lets us go to free agency, I can't make answers for you. We've just got to get better. We've got to coach better and improve with what we have."