KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Bob Shoop knows the questions are coming.
The first-year defensive coordinator, who made headlines this summer saying no team would run on the ‘Orange Swarm,’ can only shake his head, chuckle and smile after Tennessee’s latest Jekyll and Hyde performance.
The Volunteers allowed an astounding 635 yards in Saturday’s 49-36 shootout win over Kentucky — 443 yards on the ground. And yet, Tennessee cruised to a conference victory because the defense played outstanding in the red zone (just two touchdowns on six trips) and forced a pair of critical 3-and-outs in a close game early in the third quarter.
“We’re a funny group, man. I can’t put a finger on it sometimes,” Shoop said Monday.
“I think we need to be backs against the wall. Everything on the line for us to play our best.
“We talk about it all the time. To me it shouldn’t require your back against the wall. That’s the mentality of a great football teams, great defenses. Two weeks ago, I gave everybody a key and said, ‘It’s time to lock in,’ and we did a really good job against Tennessee Tech. This week, it was about 11 angry men all the time. Just little things like that to get the guys juiced up and focused and motivated. … But you can’t have a dumb mistake on the first play of the game, let the quarterback run 70 yards. All that pregame rah-rah stuff leads to poor execution on the first play and then it deflates you.”
Tennessee’s defense has allowed some ugly stats this season — Alabama and Texas A&M both piled up huge yardage in wins last month — but Shoop’s unit has also been quite disruptive, ranking in the top half of the conference in tackles for loss (79), sacks (24), takeaways (18) and third down defense (34.6 percent).
It’s the lack of consistency that has driven Shoop “batty.”
He noted individual efforts against Kentucky by Cory Vereen, who had a tackle for loss at the 1-yard line, Stephen Griffin, who forced a fumble inside the 10-yard line, and Micah Abernathy. But Shoop also lamented how both Griffin and Abernathy took poor angles in run support, nickel-back Rashaan Gaulden whiffed on an assignment the very first play of the game and a team-wide plague of missed tackles.
“We’ve passed the number of TFLs we had a year ago. Last year we only had 75. We’ve broken up passes. We’ve created takeaways,” Shoop explained.
“But I think the Achilles heel of this defense is the big plays. And again, I keep saying it, it’s not big plays. It’s like monstrous plays. Everybody has a run 15 to 20 yards. Everybody gives up a pass 25 or 30 yards. But we’re giving up (huge) ones. You’re not going to have good run statistics when you give up two runs over 70 yards in a single game.”
Teams, especially in the latter-half of the season, have exploited Tennessee on the edges, as Shoop said the Vols haven’t been physical enough on the second and third levels of the defense. Those errors have resulted in the “monstrous” plays he alluded too, as Tennessee has surrendered 14 snaps over 40 yards — third-most in the SEC and good for 89th nationally.
Part of the problem Saturday was Tennessee’s failure to put Kentucky completely away late. Up 35-16, the Vols relaxed on defense, yielding 203 yards and 20 points in the fourth quarter alone.
With another explosive offense coming to town this week, that can’t happen against Missouri if Tennessee hopes to continue its march toward Atlanta.
“Our guys just need to have that killer instinct. We need to be able to finish games,” Shoop said.
“Those things absolutely drive me batty. … But like Bill Beleckick always says, ‘Past performance has very little to do with this week’s result.’ So we’ll make the corrections from last week’s game and we’ll put the players in the field that are best prepared to play against Missouri.”