KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's defense was able to put itself in some favorable situations in the season's first four games.
One detail here or there kept those from turning into favorable outcomes.
The Volunteers have struggled to get off the field on third downs in the past two games against Oregon and Florida, but defensive coordinator John Jancek and his players all sense they're close to finishing those plays.
"I show them the clips," Jancek said Wednesday evening following Tennessee's practice. "I'm like, 'Look at this: there's the ball, it's checked down and we don't get him down.' I mean, that's ... come on. They see it. They know.
"Our problem was when you look at the conversions [against Florida], it was we missed a sack, or we lost our point on the quarterback. One time the nickel didn't blitz and it would've been wide open, and it's just keeping him in the pocket and keeping our points on the quarterback, leverage plays."
Tennessee's opponents are converting 45.6 percent (26-of57) on third downs, and the Gators and Ducks increased that rate by combining to convert on 16 of the 30 third downs they faced.
The Vols are 104th nationally and 13th in the SEC in that category, and during last season's defensive debacle, Tennessee tied for 53rd nationally in third down defense (38.9 percent).
"It's a little frustrating, but you've just got to keep going at it," linebacker Brent Brewer said. "We'll be fine. We're fixing our mistakes this week, and we're watching film and making sure everybody knows what they're doing when they get out on the field."
The Gators converted on 10 of the first 15 third downs they faced, including all four on two second-half touchdown drives that put the game out of reach. Six of those conversions were either third-and-6 or longer, and quarterback Tyler Murphy, the backup for which the Vols barely prepared in practice all last week, ran for five of those first downs.
"I feel like on third down, we was really close to getting to the quarterback or even just impacting or getting in his way or whatever," defensive end Marlon Walls said. "I think we need to learn as a defensive line how to finish the play as opposed to getting there and slowing down a little bit. I think we've just got to learn how to finish.
"Those little plays, man, we can really impact them by getting in his way a little bit or throwing our hands up in front of his face. As a D-line, that's something we need to get better at on third downs."
The best example of Tennessee failing to finish a makeable play came on one of Murphy's passes.
On third-and-10 from Tennessee's 45-yard line, Murphy threw about a 7-yard pass to Solomon Patton, and nickelback JaRon Toney was in position to make a tackle to force a fourth down.
Instead, Patton scooted out of Toney's grasp for a 12-yard gain and the first down, and Florida scored to take a 31-10 lead five plays later -- on a third-and-goal from the 7, no less.
"It's what you want," Jancek said. "You've got them to throw the checkdown, and you're in a zone coverage. You've got defenders all over the field. You've got to get him down and make the play."
Tennessee stopped Oregon on three of the four third downs the Ducks faced to start the game, but the one conversion was a 38-yard pass play on third-and-9. Make a stop there, and the Vols regain possession with an early 7-0 lead. The Ducks converted on four of their next five third downs -- and one fourth down -- in racing to a 59-7 lead.
"That's the big thing: We know what we're doing," Brewer said. "People just have to stay on their job and not try to make all the plays, everybody's plays. You've just got to trust your teammates, that they'll do their job.
"Everything's correctable. We have people in place. We've just got to be more shoot-our-gun and go make the play and not be hesitant out there."
Tennessee is allowing nearly 50 yards per game more through four games this season than at this same point last season, though former coordinator Sal Sunseri's defense didn't face Oregon's super-powered offense.
In October, when the Vols face three offenses -- Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama -- better than the one they faced in Gainesville, it'll be even more paramount they make the plays they're in position to make.
"I'm really pleased with our guys' mentality and their attitude and their willingness to do what we ask them to do," Jancek said. "It doesn't always work out that way, but I like them. I like their mindset.
"A lot of work that still needs to be done with our fundamentals, communication, just some basic things that we've got to continue to grow. We are what we are right now."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...