KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — No one was supposed to run on “The Orange Swarm,” but in the last couple weeks, Tennessee’s rush defense has been a dumpster fire on par with internet commentators and the 2016 presidential election.
The Volunteers rush defense first cratered against Georgia (181 yards and two touchdowns) before officially disappearing in losses to Texas A&M and Alabama.
The Vols depleted defense surrendered a whopping 762 rushing yards combined against the Aggies and Tide — more than their first five games combined (745 yards) this season.
Injuries have certainly been a factor, but communication issues, missed tackles and a consistent failure to win 1-on-1 matchups has contributed to ghastly statistics in recent weeks.
Against Alabama, Tennessee surrendered 14 rushes where contact wasn’t made until 10 yards downfield — the most allowed in a game by any Power 5 team in five years, per ESPN Stats.
“The names on the back of the jersey may change, but the standards and expectations will never change,” UT coach Butch Jones said.
“It’s been a combination of a lot of little things. As we know, all the little things add up to big things. It was a miss run fit here. It was a missed tackle here. The gap being wide open and we don’t shoot the gap. We chart hidden yardage. There’s a big difference between a 4-yard gain when it could’ve been a negative 1-yard gain. It was a combination of all the little things. Leveraging the defense. Backside pursuit. All the little things that it takes to play a high level, championship style defense.”
Against Texas A&M and Alabama, the Volunteers missed 26 tackles, per cfbfilmroom.com. Small gains turned into chunk plays. Tennessee has especially struggled against mobile quarterbacks, with junior safety Todd Kelly Jr. saying communication breakdowns have led to a lot of explosive plays.
On the season, the Volunteers have allowed 43 rushing plays of 10 yards or more.
“When we haven’t communicated, we’ve given up big plays,” Kelly Jr. said. “It all boils down to not being in the right position where we need to be.”
Rush defense was naturally a major emphasis during the bye week, and Saturday’s game against South Carolina presents Tennessee a real opportunity to solve its current woes. The Gamecocks rank last in the SEC — and No. 122 nationally — in run offense, averaging a paltry 106.8 yards per game.
“We know what we’re capable of, but we have to execute better on our end,” Vols defensive tackle Kendal Vickers said.
“A lot of the big runs, we’ve been like one guy away. We just have to control that, and we will be successful.”