KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — In the last couple weeks, Tennessee coach Butch Jones’ favorite quote has been “We’re not going to win the stat battle. It’s not going to be pretty, but our team rallies.”
He’s not wrong there.
The Volunteers (8-3) have been forced to win a pair of shootouts against Kentucky and Missouri in November, as a depleted defense has allowed an astounding 1,375 yards in two games. The Vols yielded a school-record 740 yards to the Tigers on a balmy Saturday, playing a whopping 110 snaps, too.
“We’re 2-0 the last two weeks, so I can’t be too mad about that,” sophomore linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. said.
While there’s a silver lining in winning, Tennessee knows its defense can’t keep forcing the offense to outgun foes, especially if the Vols want to win double-digit games for the first time in a decade.
So what happened Saturday?
Tennessee’s saving grace Saturday was turnovers and a few key momentum plays.
The Vols won by nearly 4 touchdowns because they had 4 takeaways without turning the ball over.
After surrounding close to 400 yards in the first half, safety Micah Abernathy picked off Drew Lock on the first play in the second half.
Later, linebacker Cortez McDowell made a big stop on a 4th-and-short to end a drive.
The Vols also recovered a pair of fumbles — both unforced — and Jonathan Kongbo rumbled 59 yards for a pick-6 off an errant screen pass late in the fourth quarter.
“I thought we made some critical stops at some critical moments,” Jones said.
“We also took the football away, which was big. There were some things to build upon.”
For the second-straight week, tackling was optional for Tennessee.
The Vols were abysmal — at all three levels of the defense — getting guys to the ground.
It will be interesting to hear the final count Monday from defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.
The linebackers, whether it was Kirkland, McDowell, Elliott Berry or Colton Jumper, frequently whiffed in the hole, while the secondary took poor angles or leveraged runs and quick throws with bad fundamentals.
Missouri’s tempo only exacerbated the problems, too.
Jones voiced his frustrations after the game, saying, “We did not run with our feet. There was too many missed tackles. We were lunging. We were in our gaps a number of times, and we just missed the tackle. A lot of it is fundamentals.”
It’s legitimately difficult to describe just how porous Tennessee’s run defense is this season.
Even dumpster fires eventually flame out. The Vols can’t stop anyone. Ten different players have rushed for at least 100 yards against Tennessee this season.
Yes, injuries are absolutely a major factor, but even Tennessee’s carnage doesn’t excuse record numbers and holes the size of Sequoias.
The Vols can’t shed blocks or fit a gap with any sort of consistency.
“It’s very frustrating, I won’t lie,” nickel-back Rashaan Gaulden said.
“All we can do is focus on the win, but at the same time, we need to fix the problem.”