KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — This pattern is growing all too familiar for Tennessee’s defense.
One year after injuries and big plays made it tough for Tennessee to stop anyone late in the season , the Volunteers find themselves again dealing with those same issues.
Tennessee lost its Southeastern Conference opener 26-20 to No. 20 Florida by allowing a tiebreaking 63-yard touchdown pass as time expired. That stunning finish wounded the pride of a defense that already had taken plenty of lumps this season.
“That’s been our Achilles heel for the year-and-a-half that we’ve been here,” said defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who joined Butch Jones’ Tennessee staff last season. “We don’t just give up big plays. We give up catastrophic-type plays.”
That defense gets a chance to bounce back and regain some confidence Saturday when the Vols (2-1) host Massachusetts (0-4) before resuming conference play.
“We very well understand this is probably the best defense we’ll play all year – talented at every position and also very deep,” UMass quarterback Andrew Ford said.
That depth has taken plenty of hits already.
Tennessee lost its top returning linebacker when Darrin Kirkland Jr. suffered a season-ending knee injury last month. Todd Kelly Jr., the Vols’ top tackler last season, hurt his knee as well and is out indefinitely. Injuries also have sidelined linebackers Austin Smith and Cortez McDowell plus safety Evan Berry.
The same situation befell Tennessee last year, when injuries decimated the defensive line and caused cornerback Cam Sutton to play just seven games and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Sutton was drafted in the third round and Reeves-Maybin was taken in the fourth round.
All those injuries may be having an impact late in games. Tennessee has allowed just 20 first-half points but has given up 54 points after halftime, including two overtime touchdowns in a season-opening victory over Georgia Tech .
“I don’t think it’s a fatigue thing,” defensive end Darrell Taylor said. “I think it’s just a matter that we’ve got to focus the whole game, make sure we sustain that focus throughout the game.”
Shoop said, “I don’t want to make any excuses” when he’s asked about the injuries, but he acknowledges that this run of misfortune has caught him by surprise.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” he added. “And I don’t think there’s anything I can pinpoint it in, or I’d suggest something to Coach. It’s not strength training. It’s not nutrition. We’re doing the right things. Everything’s been kind of a fluky thing.”
The big plays Tennessee has allowed can’t be considered fluky. They’re happening far too often.
Tennessee’s 2016 defense gave up 19 plays from scrimmage of 40-plus yards, according to cfbstats.com . Arkansas was the only SEC team to allow more gains of at least 40 yards.
In the fourth quarter of the Florida game, Tennessee gave up a 72-yard run along with the game-winning 63-yard touchdown.
“Offensively, you can play 55 bad snaps and three good snaps and score 21 points,” Shoop said. “Defensively you can play 55 great snaps and three bad snaps, and you stink.”
Tennessee did make a remarkable recovery at the end of the 72-yard run, as cornerback Justin Martin chased down Malik Davis and forced a fumble that resulted in a touchback. Tennessee’s had plenty of other remarkable individual performances from defensive players thus far.
Linebacker Daniel Bituli has an SEC-leading 33 tackles , including 23 against Georgia Tech. Rashaan Gaulden has shown this defense can create big plays rather than allowing them, as he forced a fumble to spark the comeback against Georgia Tech and had an interception that led to a game-tying field goal against Florida.
Now they need more guys to step up.
“I think we’ll be able to handle it,” Taylor said. “We know what we need to do.”
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