Vols seeks to improve run defense during off week
Tennessee doesn't have to spend much time figuring out where it needs the most improvement as it heads into its off week.
The first month of the season has shown that the Volunteers won't stop their recent run of misery against Top 25 teams unless they do a better job of stopping the run, period.
''We've obviously got a lot of issues on defense stopping the run that we've got to correct on this open date or we're not going to beat anybody,'' Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said Saturday after the Volunteers' 51-44 loss to No. 5 Georgia.
Tennessee (3-2, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) is allowing 5.2 yards per carry, the highest average yielded by any team in the six major conferences.
Georgia's Keith Marshall sliced through Tennessee's defense for 164 yards on only 10 carries, including touchdowns of 75 and 72 yards. Georgia's Todd Gurley ran 24 times for 130 yards and three touchdowns, including a 51-yard score.
''It's nothing they did that was special or that we weren't ready for,'' Tennessee safety Byron Moore said. ''It was just missed assignments. We've got to do a better job of wrapping guys up and getting them down.''
The breakaways by Marshall and Gurley continued a troublesome trend for Tennessee. The Vols have allowed five touchdown runs of 50 yards or greater over their last three games. Four of those runs went at least 70 yards.
The other 13 SEC teams combined have allowed only two touchdown runs of at least 50 yards so far this season. Tennessee is the only SEC team that has given up any touchdown runs of at least 70 yards.
''We've got to shore up this stopping-the-run issue,'' Dooley said. ''(Georgia's) a great running team, but we're a lot better than what we showed. It was frustrating. When they get in the secondary, we've got no ability to get the guy down, which is really disappointing.''
Tennessee must solve the problem soon.
After taking next week off, the Vols travel to No. 20 Mississippi State, a team that averages over 5 yards per carry. Tennessee follows that up by hosting No. 1 Alabama and its dynamic duo of Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon. Then the Vols visit No. 6 South Carolina and attempt to slow down Marcus Lattimore.
Tennessee has lost 13 consecutive games to ranked foes and has gone 0-12 against the Top 25 since Dooley took over the program in 2010. That losing streak will continue if Tennessee doesn't upgrade its run defense.
''We've got to watch the film, evaluate our personnel,'' Dooley said. ''If we've got to make some changes, we'll make some changes.''
Tennessee can take some small measure of comfort in its fourth-quarter performance Saturday. Georgia went scoreless in the final period and didn't have a single carry go longer than 3 yards in any of its last four possessions.
That backs up the Vols' belief that they can develop into a quality defense once they avoid the breakdowns that have led to breakaways.
''When you (have) busts and don't do your assignments and you give up plays, you get the results you get,'' Tennessee linebacker Herman Lathers said. ''Once we do our assignments and our technique, we're a good football team.''
The problems come whenever a runner gets into the secondary. Tennessee's defensive backs often haven't been fast enough to catch up in those situations. When the Vols have been in position to make a play, they frequently have missed the tackle.
Tennessee already retooled its secondary once this year after safety Brian Randolph tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a 37-20 loss to Florida. Randolph's injury caused Brent Brewer to enter the starting lineup and led to more playing time for freshman LaDarrell McNeil. Justin Coleman also replaced Marsalis Teague as a starting cornerback after the Florida game.
Perhaps this latest loss results in more shuffling.
By staying competitive with Georgia, Tennessee demonstrated it isn't all that far away from the top teams in the SEC. By failing to to keep Gurley and Marshall from running wild for most of the day, the Vols showed why they aren't quite there yet.
''Once we eliminate the big plays,'' Lathers said, ''we know we can compete with anybody in the country.''