KNOXVILLE — Tennessee fans rightly relished in the spark freshman quarterback Brian Maurer gave the team in the first half against Georgia, but those who came down from that high and viewed other aspects of the game had to quickly notice one glaring problem.
The defense still stinks.
That’s not good news heading into Saturday’s game at Neyland Stadium against run-dominant Mississippi State (3-2, 1-1 SEC).
The Vols (1-4, 0-2) were gashed by Georgia to the tune of 5.8 yards per rush. That the No. 3-ranked Bulldogs were strong in the run game was not a surprise. Tennessee complicated matters by giving up yards after contact on a regular basis and not generating a pass rush.
Those problems persisted throughout the game, but one of the biggest instances came in the final minute of the first half with Georgia leading by six points. Trailing by one score would have given the Vols a hop in their step coming out for the third quarter, but Bulldogs running back D’Andre Swift ripped off a 23-yard gain on a draw play to begin the final drive of the first half.
Georgia scored a touchdown four plays later.
“Defensively, in the first half, we couldn’t get them stopped,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “Some of it had to do with Georgia, and some had to do with us. One of the first thing you have to do to be a good defensive team is you have to make the other team earn it, and sometimes tonight we did make them earn it.”
The Vols have not been making their opponents earn much this season. Georgia gained 7.5 yards per play and scored 43 points. Florida gained 6.2 yards per play and scored 34 points.
As can be expected against teams ranked in the top 10, those are the lowlights in the first five games. Tennessee allows 5.8 yards per play, which ranks 77th out of 130 FBS teams.
The Vols’ eight sacks are tied for last place in the SEC with Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. They had no sacks and two tackles for loss against Georgia, while the Bulldogs had three sacks among 11 tackles for loss.
Defensive lineman Matthew Butler said the fastest way for Tennessee to improve its pass rush is to win one-on-ones.
“We might get two one-on-ones on the ends or two one-on-ones on the inside. We need to capitalize on those,” Butler said. “Even if it’s not a one-on-one, just pushing the pocket, get in the quarterback’s face. It’s not all about just sacking the guy — getting hands up, stopping coverages, and getting a hit on him — something to that extent just to affect the quarterback.”
The Vols will have a different challenge against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs will use two quarterbacks in Garrett Shrader and Tommy Stevens. When Shrader is in the game the Vols will have to be mindful of his ability to run. The freshman is averaging 6.8 yards per carry.
Shrader is a rare underclassman that gets significant playing time. Of the 30 players on Mississippi State’s offensive depth chart, 21 are juniors or seniors. That includes every starter. Junior running back Kylin Hill is the Bulldogs’ biggest threat. He is averaging 5.5. yards per carry and 119.2 yards per game.
Tennessee should get a boost this week with the return of freshman cornerback Warren Burrell, who sat out the Georgia game with an ankle injury. The thin middle linebacker group could get some help from freshman outside linebacker Quavaris Crouch, who is working in that spot this week to fill in some depth.
Pruitt said defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon, who left the Georgia game with an injury, should be available against Mississippi State, too.
The Vols game plan will include heavy focus on stopping the run, but they’re not likely to win without at least an adequate performance in getting to the quarterback.
“What our coaches always say is: ‘A good pass rush is a good back-end defense and a good back-end defense is a good pass rush,’” senior safety Nigel Warrior said. “I think the pass rush helps us out a lot. It helps us break down from running around a lot. When the quarterback breaks the pocket, I think that it helps with us not having to run around so much and actually having to chase a receiver.
“With all the time that a quarterback could have, with the pass rush knocking it down, I think it really helps us a lot.”