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Tennessee Offense: Vols Coming Up Short in Key Stats

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Through five games, the Vol offense finds itself every bit as bad as it felt against Florida in a number of important statistical rankings.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

When the Vols scored 38 points on what we believed to be a salty Utah State defense (and they are 12th nationally in yards per play allowed right now), we looked around at all these shiny new toys like Jalen Hurd and Josh Malone and assumed the Tennessee offense would get even better.  But instead, after five games Tennessee finds itself ranked 119th nationally in yards per play at 4.53.  That's dead last in the SEC, though I am once again comforted that the Clawfense is the worst offense in the nation right now.

The Vols finished 94th nationally in yards per play last year at 5.27, though much of that could be blamed on having to play a freshman quarterback against such a brutal schedule in the back half, and the rest can always be blamed on Lane Kiffin or Derek Dooley.  I still think the dominant opinion on this year's offense is to blame the young line, and perhaps that's accurate.  But the way this thing played out, with 30+ points against Utah State and Arkansas State, wasted opportunities being the name of the game at Oklahoma, and 30+ points at Georgia, I think everyone assumed we had something good in the making offensively.

But the concern now has to be if Florida revealed far more of the truth:  the existing offensive line issues coupled with receivers that can't get open enough against press man coverage for the passing game to be at full strength.

These numbers are all going to get better this week because the Vols are playing Chattanooga; the fact that we haven't played a cupcake yet is certainly hurting us in the national rankings.  But if you want a good idea about where this offense is and how far it has to grow, the numbers after five games will probably be a little more reliable.

Joel will be along with the full stat progression soon, but let's just look at a few offensive categories.  The Vols are coming up short in a number of very important stats beyond the straightforward ones:

  • Scoring Offense:  24.6 ppg, 92nd nationally
  • Rushing Offense:  107 ypg, 112th nationally; 2.97 yards per carry, 115th nationally
  • Passing Offense:  242 ypg, 57th nationally; 5.9 yards per attempt, 110th nationally
  • Total Offense:  349 ypg, 106th nationally; 4.53 yards per play, 119th nationally

(How fast is college football changing due to up-tempo offenses?  In 2008 to be a Top 50 offense you had to average 372.5 yards per game.  Right now Memphis is #50 with 441.6 yards per game.)

You can also throw in the obvious:  Tennessee is 121st nationally in sacks allowed, giving up 3.6 per game and more in five games this year (18) than they gave up all of last year (15).

So yeah, the line has to get better.  Whether that's some or all of Tennessee's offensive woes, the Vols are also really struggling in a couple of other very important areas:

Touchdowns in the Red Zone

Obviously not helped by Saturday's performance.

Tennessee has been to the red zone 21 times in five games, a middle-of-the-pack 59th nationally.  Consider, of course, two of those "trips" came via Florida interceptions on Saturday and two others on Utah State turnovers.  But the Vols have only 11 touchdowns in those 21 attempts, just 52.4% of the time.

Here's how those 21 attempts have gone:

  • Utah State 1st and Goal at 8:  Pig Howard TD run (1 play)
  • Utah State 1st and 10 at 12:  Brendan Downs TD (1 play)
  • Utah State 1st and 10 at 18:  FG (3 plays, 3 incomplete passes)
  • Utah State 2nd and 9 at 20:  Von Pearson TD (2 plays)
  • Utah State 1st and 10 at 15:  Jalen Hurd TD (1 play)
  • Utah State 1st and 10 at 11:  Marlin Lane TD run (2 plays)
  • Arkansas State 1st and Goal at 8:  FG (3 plays, 6 yards)
  • Arkansas State 1st and 10 at 15:  Jalen Hurd TD run (3 plays)
  • Arkansas State 1st and Goal at 5:  Marquez North TD (4 plays, 1 penalty)
  • Arkansas State 1st and 10 at 17:  Justin Worley TD run (3 plays)
  • Arkansas State 1st and 10 at 20:  Marquez North TD (3 plays)
  • Arkansas State 4th and 5 at 17:  Missed FG
  • Arkansas State 4th and 1 at 19:  FG
  • Oklahoma 1st and Goal at 10:  FG (3 plays, -3 yards)
  • Oklahoma 1st and 10 at 12:  INT (3 plays, 8 yards)
  • Georgia 1st and Goal at 7:  Jalen Hurd TD (3 plays)
  • Georgia 1st and 10 at 16:  Marquez North TD (4 plays)
  • Florida 3rd and 5 at 17:  FG (Josh Malone drop)
  • Florida 1st and 10 at 13:  INT
  • Florida 1st and 10 at 17:  FG (3 plays, -3 yards)
  • Florida 1st and 10 at 13:  FG (3 plays, -8 yards)
Let's throw out the last two against Arkansas State, where the Vols didn't get to the red zone until after the third down play.  But against Oklahoma, Georgia, and Florida the Vols have eight trips to the red zone and only two touchdowns.  This does not beat good teams.

Red zone play-calling in those eight trips?
  • Oklahoma:  Hurd two carries, one yard; Worley one scramble for 10; Worley 1-3 for -6 yards, pick six
  • Georgia:  Hurd three carries, 17 yards, TD; Worley 1-4 for 6 yards, TD
  • Florida:  Lane one carry, no gain; Worley 2-6, -4 yards, INT, sack
  • Total:  Six carries, 18 yards (plus Worley scramble, minus Worley sack); Worley 4-13 for -4 yards, 1 TD 2 INT
Woof, those passing numbers.

Whether it's play-calling or execution (and hey, I think we'd all like to see Hurd get more chances down there next time), Tennessee has to start playing with a lot more confidence in the red zone.  It starts by simply not going backward or throwing interceptions.  It ends with putting the ball in the end zone.

Of course, the Vols could avoid the red zone altogether if they made more big plays.  But this too has been a big issue.

Big Plays

Tennessee is a little behind in national rankings here having already had a bye week, but the numbers still aren't good.  Two years ago it was the defense that was truly awful in this category, but this year, so far it's the offense's turn:
  • 10+ yard plays:  65, 94th nationally
  • 20+ yard plays:  21, 83rd nationally
  • 30+ yard plays:  6, 111th nationally
Tennessee, as you know, hasn't hit a deep ball all season.  Here are the 30+ yard plays so far this year:
  • 1Q Utah State:  Josh Smith 38 yard catch (TD next play)
  • 1Q Arkansas State:  Von Pearson 56 yard catch (FG)
  • 2Q Oklahoma:  Jalen Hurd 30 yard screen pass (same drive as next play)
  • 2Q Oklahoma:  Josh Smith 40 yard TD
  • 3Q Oklahoma:  Jalen Hurd 43 yard run (Croom end zone INT two plays later)
  • 4Q Georgia:  Pig Howard 31 yard TD
Tennessee only hit 21 30+ yard plays last year, which was just 87th nationally in 2013.  But this year the Vols are on pace for just 14 30+ yard plays and still haven't faced strong defensive tests from Ole Miss and Alabama.

If there's a bright side here besides hoping for the offensive line to just get better, it's in seeing Josh Smith and Von Pearson's names here and knowing those guys are coming back at full-ish strength soon.  I think it's fair to say the Vols are more dynamic when both of those guys are on the field.

It's a simple thing to say - more big plays, more touchdowns in the red zone - but until Tennessee moves in that direction, we're going to have to keep asking way more than we should from our defense.  It's a story for another post, but those numbers are just as impressive as the offensive numbers are depressing and not just on third down.  And all combinations of Bajakian, Worley, wide receivers getting open and the offensive line have to continue to improve.  At this point, it's all you can hope for...and if it comes, we can start winning some of these close games instead of losing them.

Go Vols.