Tennessee struggling to convert on third down

BY foxsports • September 16, 2010

Third-and-long is tough for any offense. Few know that better than Tennessee.

The Volunteers have converted a woeful seven of 30 third-down attempts in two games, including only two in 15 tries in a 48-13 loss to No. 5 Oregon on Saturday. Only 13 FBS teams have a worse third-down conversion rate.

With No. 10 Florida (2-0) coming to town on Saturday, things could get worse for the Volunteers (1-1) before they get better.

''Whenever you have third-and-long, it's tough,'' Vols quarterback Matt Simms said. ''The defenses can really hone in on what you're doing offensively because you are at a disadvantage.''

Tennessee is a run-first offense, and with an average 257 yards per game, the Vols' running game ranks second in the Southeastern Conference behind Auburn.

The Florida defense has already made it clear that it plans on shutting down the run. That means Tennessee may find itself in frequent third-and-long situations and passing more against a defense that leads the nation with eight interceptions and has returned two for touchdowns.

''We're struggling a little bit on third down because we're struggling a little bit throwing the ball in the drop-back game,'' coach Derek Dooley said. ''There's a lot of reasons for that. It's not just the quarterback, you know. It takes good protection. It takes a good snap. It takes good, fast routes, recognizing the coverage, delivering the football and then catching it. We've got to get better at that.''

Coverage is especially key facing Florida, which has scored a staggering 48 points off turnovers this season.

And they're hungry for more.

''Anytime the ball's in the air, we try our hardest to go get it. If not, we make a play on the ball,'' said Florida senior safety Ahmad Black, whose interception against Tennessee last season sealed the Gators' 23-13 win.

Dooley and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney have been trying to stay out of third-and-long situations by running the ball and using some play-action passes.

When it comes to drop-back passing, they're trying to put Simms and his receivers in the best possible situation by giving the quarterback a few different targets on the same side of the field and having receivers run routes on the outside of the field, where they are more likely to be in a one-on-one matchup.

''We have to believe in the coaches and believe in what they are trying to do,'' Tennessee senior wide receiver Denarius Moore said.

Simms has thrown only one interception this season, but it turned out to be devastating against the Ducks.

On third-and-13 at the Oregon 27, Simms dropped back and heaved the ball, which was intercepted by Cliff Harris. Harris returned the pick 76 yards for a touchdown to give Oregon a 27-13 lead with 6:27 left in the third quarter.

In the 38:33 before the interception, Simms had completed 11 of 20 passes for 143 yards and no sacks. In the 21:27 after the interception, he was 4-for-9 with eight yards passing and two sacks.

The Gators are concentrating more on Simms' capabilities, though, and they've got their own scout in senior defensive end Justin Trattou, who grew up with Simms and played with him at Don Bosco Prep School in Ramsey, N.J.

''Matt's a real talented quarterback. He has a great arm, he can throw with the best of them, so we definitely have to watch out for that,'' said Trattou, who returned an interception 35 yards for a touchdown in a 38-14 win over South Florida on Saturday.

Dooley just might try to confuse Florida's defense completely.

''We're going to not throw the ball, I guess,'' the coach joked.


AP Sports Writer Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla., contributed to this story.

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