October 1, 2008

First-down success shows hope for offense

Before Tennessee's season had spiraled to its worst opening month in 14 years, flash back to three first-down plays the Vols ran in their home loss Sept. 20 against Florida.

On their first three snaps on first down, Tennessee's offense popped the Gators for 9, 9 and 9 yards. It was a remarkably similar start to the season-opening contest at UCLA, when the Vols' initial three first-down plays yielded gains of 9, 17 and 7 yards.

Those gains are even greater than what the UT coaches target to keep the offense in what they term "normal down-and-distance" situations. A gain of 4 yards or more on first down is generally considered a successful play in terms of giving an offense a realistic opportunity to sustain a drive or series. Through four games Tennessee's offense has approximately 59 gains of 4 yards or more on roughly 115 first-down plays, which doesn't include a first-down field goal or any instances where the Vols spiked the ball to halt the clock.

"A lot more than not," first-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said of his unit's first-down success rate. "We've been really good on first down. We do it every week, and it's always been 40s, 50s, it's been a good percentage."

But for myriad reasons, the carryover from a successful first down to manageable second and third downs hasn't transpired. Oftentimes it has been fundamental mistakes. Against UCLA, Tennessee had three false starts in a span of a possible five second-down plays. The Vols also had an illegal formation on second down in that game and three holding penalties negate gains totaling almost 40 yards against UAB and Florida -- including an impressive 26-yard run against the Gators by Arian Foster that would have set up the offense in UF territory.

"I think all season we've been having pretty good production on first down," said tailback Montario Hardesty, the Vols' touchdown specialist with four rushing scores this season. "And on second down, we've been mixing it up between run and pass. I think on second down there's been a mistake and it's not that same person. That's something on offense we've got to correct. It could be me one play and somebody else the next play. That's just something that we've definitely got to work on to get better."

Elevating their second-down efforts could lead to improved success on third downs, where Tennessee ranks among the SEC's and nation's worst offenses. The Vols are just 20 of 57 converting third downs -- 35 percent, 10th in the SEC, 87th nationally -- and against BCS-level competition have 13 first downs on 44 third-down plays. Sixty-five teams in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision are completing at least 40 percent of their third downs.

"We haven't executed as well as we need to as a whole," said Clawson. "We've done a good job on first down, had a good mix of run and pass. We've had some makeable third downs and haven't executed on them. Auburn had a great third-down defense going into game. Third-and-4, 3, 2 are downs we need to convert more often than not. Third-and-8, 9, you're not going to convert many of those at any level. Third-and-6 or less, you need to convert half and keep drives alive."

Why hasn't Tennessee's offense sustained more drives? The seminal issue likely points to the Vols' ineffectiveness with their passing game. As opposing defenses continue to crowd eight and even nine defenders in the 4- to 5-yard area that comprises the "box' near the line of scrimmage, more passing success becomes imperative. In their three losses the Vols have completed just 45 of 93 pass attempts from the quarterback position and had completion droughts totaling a combined 43 minutes in the UCLA and Auburn losses.

"Well, we're not executing the passing game well," Clawson said. "We're getting a lot of man coverage, and we're getting pressed up, and we're not executing that as well as we need to. At times our receivers are getting released."

Senior offensive guard Anthony Parker believes the offense needs to carry its first-down mindset throughout each series and also be more adept at taking what defenses are giving on second and third downs.

"On first down, I guess you could say we're more into it," said the 2007 All-America pick. "They're not bringing pressure, but I think on second down teams have been more apt to bring pressure to us on second down. I think that may have something to do with it as well.

"As an offensive line, you come out and you want to be able to sustain drives for a long period of time. To not be able to get it done on second down is definitely frustrating."

But Hardesty, like many of his teammates, thinks the Vols just need some positive momentum and the offense will take off.

"Offensively, we moved the ball up and down the field against Florida but there were costly mistakes," said the junior from New Bern, N.C.. "I just think that's something that's been biting us. We're not going to play a perfect game, because football is a game of mistakes, but if we can have a game where we're just moving the ball smoothly, that will give us confidence and I think the offense will start to go."

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