As senior defensive end Kyle Phillips noted on Monday, South Carolina took it to Tennessee’s defense last Saturday.
The result? A 27-24 loss to the Gamecocks that was caused, in part, due to Tennessee’s inability to stop South Carolina’s rushing attack. Had the Vols’ defense been able to slow down the Gamecocks’ run game, they might’ve come away with their second SEC win of the season.
“They took it to us, and we didn’t have an answer,” Philips said. “If you’re on the field, it’s your job to make a play. So, we didn’t have a lot of that our last game. We have to do a better job.”
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At the final whistle, South Carolina had 224 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 40 carries. Heading into the game, Will Muschamp’s offense had been averaging just 153.6 rushing yards per game. Following their performance against the Vols, that number jumped to 163.7 yards a game – 76th-best in the country and 12th in the SEC.
“We didn’t stop the run, and we didn’t create many negative plays,” Jeremy Pruitt said during his Monday press conference. “We gave up some explosive plays. We have to eliminate that. It’s interesting when you watch the first 24 plays versus the last 30 plays in the game. The difference when it comes from the defensive standpoint is the production, so we have to improve there.”
Tennessee has done a poor job of stopping the run this season. South Carolina’s 224 rushing yards marked the fourth time this season an SEC opponent has rushed for more than 200 yards against the Vols. Florida rushed for 201 yards, Georgia rushed for 251 yards, and Alabama rushed for 218 yards.
If you ask senior defense lineman Paul Bain, though, he definitely thinks Tennessee’s defense has improved this season.
“I feel like we’re a stronger team mentally and physically,” Bain said on Monday. “I feel like we’re more prepared going into games, and I feel like right now, we’re a very, very good football team. We’re just making a bunch of minor mistakes that are costing us these close games.”
Those minor mistakes Bain is referring to were on full display while South Carolina running back Rico Dowdle was running wild on the Vols’ defense. Dowdle rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown on 14 attempts. He averaged 10 yards a carry.
“Just a lot of mistakes on our part,” Bain added. “It was really Tennessee beating Tennessee.
“A lot of the film that we watch, it’s our mistakes that other teams are capitalizing on. That has nothing to do with more talent, it’s just us beating ourselves.”
Bain’s claim that Tennessee’s defense has improved this season does have merit. Tennessee finished 126th out of 130 teams in rush defense last season. In Pruitt’s first season, the Vols currently sit at No. 75 in the country. In total defense, Tennessee has climbed from 82nd to 61st nationally.
“We keep our confidence because we work every day, and we know what it can look like when it’s all put together,” Bain stated. “We know how special we can be, so when you have that image in your head and that confidence about you, you can have that swagger about you going into every week so that you can have confidence.”
Tennessee held Auburn to just 126 rushing yards in its upset win three weeks ago. When the Tigers did have success against the Vols, it was because Gus Malzahn’s offense revved up the tempo. South Carolina saw that and tried to duplicate it.
Unfortunately for the Vols, they didn’t adjust all that well as the defensive line couldn’t penetrate or get off blocks. At the second level of the defense, the linebackers were poor in pursuit and also struggled to get off blocks. Simply put, Tennessee didn’t have an answer to South Carolina going up-tempo.
“I think going into any game, preparation wise, it’s going to be hard to get what every team does down pat because the game is continually growing,” Bain said. “Every team is putting in new plays, new formations, things like that.”
Part of that preparation is what Tennessee is going to need to really improve upon if this team wants to get to six wins and make a bowl game. The Vols can still have a decent season and finish on a high-note if they correct their mistakes throughout preparation.
“We have to do the best we can to win out,” Phillips said when asked how critical it is to make a bowl game. “I think we have a good team, but we make too many mistakes and too many little things hurt us.
“We don’t have a margin for error, and we have to make sure we take advantage of that. This program is a top-tier program, and if we want this program to take it to the next level, we have to do better.”
Tennessee looks to get back on track this Saturday against Charlotte. The 49ers will serve as the Vols’ homecoming opponent this season. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.