KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — After nearly a month of leaky rush defense, Tennessee stuffed Tennessee Tech’s ground game on Saturday, allowing just 60 yards on 38 attempts.
Asked about the dramatically improved play, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop immediately quipped, “I think it has do to some with the fact that we didn’t play Texas A&M and Alabama.”
At least he’s honest.
Decimated by injuries — especially at defensive tackle — the Volunteers have struggled to consistently stop opponents from ramming the ball down their throats in conference games.
They allowed 762 yards and 8 rushing touchdowns combined against the Tide and Aggies before steadying a bit in the loss at South Carolina (158 yards on 49 attempts).
Tennessee ranks No. 83 in rush defense this season, allowing 13 runs over 20 yards, too. But Shoop explained Monday that the raw stats are a tad misleading.
According to UT’s first-year coordinator, 94 percent of Tennessee’s run snaps have netted “big league” results.
“If you really go back and study the nine games — and I’ve done it a lot — we haven’t played poor run defense except for those two games,” Shoop detailed.
“And if you really look at it, here are the stats: We’ve have 380 rush attempts against us. I’d suggest to you after watching the film, studying it and analyzing it, 358 of the snaps we’ve played pretty big league. We give up 2.8 yards a rush on 358 of 380 snaps. Now on the other 22 snaps, they’ve been atrocious. As bad as bad can be. So the numbers are a little bit skewed there.
“We’ve been efficient but the big and explosive plays against us is what we haven’t done a very good job capturing it at the second and third level.”
The Vols efficiency will be tested against Kentucky on Saturday, as they’re preparing for a different challenge against a dynamic one-two punch.
Over the last month, the ‘Wildcat’ formation has become a staple in the Cats’ run game. The tailback designed runs have created an element of explosiveness for UK, as Stanley ‘Boom’ Williams and freshman Benjamin Snell Jr. rank among the Top 10 rushers in the SEC.
Williams is averaging a whopping 7.30 yards per carry on 123 rushes, while Snell has 775 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns — the most by any tailback in the conference.
“They’re outstanding,” Vols defensive line coach Steve Stripling said.
“They have great lateral quickness. They play the piano. They come up to the line and they just kind of go down and then all of a sudden they just find a seam.
“When we quality control all our big plays, a lot of times to be honest it’s something that we’ve done, but these skill-guys can actually make you look bad. They’re very skilled. They can come into a hole and jump-cut and jump outside. You can probably do things right and not make the tackle against these guys.”
Kentucky had real success with the ‘Wildcat’ formation in wins against Mississippi State and Missouri. In Saturday’s loss to Georgia, UK ran plays from the formation 10 straight times during a late fourth quarter drive.
Each week, co-coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw continue to add wrinkles to the gadget offense, too.
“We’ve got to keep it simple. Allow our guys to get their cleats in the ground and recognize formations,” said Shoop, also noting that tackling and gap control is paramount against the ‘Wildcat’ formation.
“The ‘Wildcat’ to me is an opportunity to neutralize you as a defense so you can’t get an extra player in the box. It’s given them a unique element to their offense that’s helped them be successful the last three or four games. … If you are unsound or undisciplined. It’s a little bit like triple-option. You have your responsibilities and everybody has to do their job. If you don’t do your job and cut a guy loose that’s when big plays happen.”
Adding to the stress, Shoop noted that Kentucky has thrown a couple passes out of the formation off trick plays. A tailback has yet to attempt a throw, but against Mississippi State, the Wildcats ran a double-reverse pass for a 44-yard touchdown.
“They only run a handful of plays but they do them very, very well,” Shoop said.
“They’ve only thrown a couple passes, but certainly you can’t not cover people. They’ve motioned the quarterback back into the backfield and pitched him the ball and he threw a long touchdown.
“Everybody has had a little bit different plan — from Missouri, to Alabama, to Georgia, to Mississippi State — everybody has had a different plan and we’ve watched them. We’ll be ready.”