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Tennessee Football: Third down defense dooms Vols

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Tennessee football had a performance worth forgetting last week in Columbia. The Vols’ most recent contest against Georgia showed those issues are still prevalent.

No. 18 Tennessee’s defense allowed No. 1 Georgia to convert 9-of-13 third downs in the contest that the Vols lost 38-10.

“Throughout the course of the game, I thought they were physical,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel Heupel said. “They played hard. They did a better job for the majority of the night of tackling. That was something that hurt us. They still let the quarterback out early in the football game to make some plays
with his feet on third down which sustained some drives for them.”

Third-down defensive breakdowns have become a trend in the games Tennessee has lost this year. Tennessee’s (7-4, 3-4 SEC) opponents, in its previous three losses, converted 52% of their third downs. After the strong defensive start, those three games have played a major role in Tennessee falling to No. 52 in the country for third down defense.

Mobile quarterbacks have caused issues. Missouri’s Brady Cook last week found success, and Georgia’s Carson Beck converted two third downs himself on Saturday. Beck also threw for 298 yards and three touchdowns on 24-of-30 passing.

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“I guess you could say breakdowns and just winning our one-on-ones,” linebacker Aaron Beasley said. “I feel like we weren’t matching our routes and zone coverages. We just want to execute.”

Florida converted 7-of-14 third downs in its win over Tennessee. Alabama converted 5-of-13 third downs in its win over Tennessee. Missouri converted 11-of-17 third downs in its win over Tennessee.

Looking back, Alabama seems like an anomaly for what used to be a dominant defense early in the year. In the last two games — only Heupel’s third time having back-to-back losses as a head coach — the defense has struggled.

It hasn’t been much better offensively on third down either. Tennessee was just 2-of-11 on third down against Georgia. The Vols weren’t much better in their other losses either.

That has led to offensive failures, and only nine total second-half points in the Vols’ four losses. Tennessee won’t be able to win big games unless it can convert on third down, offensively and defensively.

“A lot of it was in the pass game. At the end of the day, I said going into it, there’s going to be one-on-one situations. They made plays in those one-on-one situations,” Heupel said. “And that can be protection, that can be giving the quarterback time. It can be making the plays out on the perimeter. And at the end of the day, we didn’t do those things, you know what I mean? 

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