published Friday, September 20th, 2013

Tennessee Vols aiming to avoid third down against Gators' stout defense

KNOXVILLE — It's a statistic first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said he's never before seen.

His struggling Volunteers offense will get a close-up view of the evidence Saturday.

In its first two games against Toledo and Miami, Florida's defense has allowed just two third-down conversions in its opponents' 24 attempts, which is easily the best rate in the country at this early point in the season.

The Vols, fresh off a 5-of-15 third-down performance at Oregon last week, face the 19th-ranked Gators on Saturday, when they'll try to avoid seeing the big bright red-orange "3" on the down marker as much as possible.

"Shoot, they've only allowed two third-down conversions the entire year. That's really good," Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said Wednesday. "It's no different because we're playing Florida's defense as opposed to any other defense. We emphasize all the time getting first downs on first and second down."

The key there is hitting some big plays, which Tennessee's offense has struggled to do this season. The Vols have just 33 plays of 10 or more yards this season, which is tied for 88th nationally, and only 15 teams have registered fewer plays of 20-plus yards than Tennessee's eight.

Aside from one 51-yard play, the Vols' longest pass play against the Ducks was a 14-yarder to tight end Brendan Downs.

The Gators are third in the country in total defense after holding the Rockets and Hurricanes to 205 and 212 yards of offense. Florida finished fifth nationally in total defense last season and uses a similar combination of talent, size and physical play.

Safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans, linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd all were selected in April's NFL draft, but Florida has reloaded defensively. Linebacker Ronald Powell is back after missing last season following a knee injury, defensive tackle Dominique Easley chose to return to school and Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy headline an athletic and aggressive secondary.

"You can have the scheme, but you've got to have the pieces to that puzzle," Tennessee right tackle Ja'Wuan James said, "and they've got the pieces for it."

Said Jones: "They have a lot of Sunday bodies in their football program and a lot of players who are going to play on Sunday. It's going to be a great test to us. They define an SEC defense."

In last year's meeting in Knoxville, the Gators held Tennessee to 340 yards of offense, and those Vols went on to average 36 points and 476 yards a game for the season.

Florida coach Will Muschamp declined to declare that his defense this year is better than that group.

"We've got a lot of football to play, and we've done some nice things at times," he said. "I don't think we've been as consistent as we've needed to be in giving up too many big plays that we're not used to around here. We need to continue to improve.

"We have a lot of things that we need to continue to work on, and the kids see that, too. That's the most important thing. As long as they see what you're seeing, they understand what we've got to do to be successul, and I think our players see that as well."

Against Oregon, Tennessee struggled on first down, which led to an average third-down distance of nearly 7 yards. On their first 17 first-down plays, the Vols managed just 45 yards for a 2.7-yard per play average. Only six of those plays went for 4 or more yards, which is considered an efficient play.

Tennessee actually converted on five of its first 11 third-down plays, but Bajakian said his offense was only 33 percent efficient on both first and second downs.

"Scoring drives are usually the result of only one, maybe two third-down conversions in a longer drive," he said. "The odds are against you in third down. If you convert 50 percent of the time on third down, you'll be toward the top in the country in third-down conversions.

"Think about that: one out of every two. If you're in multiple third downs in a series, well, the odds are against you in scoring. We talk about getting first downs on first and second down."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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