— KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Third down has been a letdown for Tennessee's defense so far this season.
Tennessee is allowing opponents to convert 45.6 percent (26 of 57) of its third-down situations. Vanderbilt is the only Southeastern Conference team doing a worse job of stopping opposing offenses on third down.
"It's very difficult and hard to deal with," senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp said. "We fought so hard on first and second down to get them in these third-down situations - and then we let them off the hook by (giving up) the first down."
Tennessee (2-2) is ranked 103rd nationally in third-down conversion percentage defense heading into Saturday's game with South Alabama (2-1).
The Volunteers actually did a better job of stopping teams on third down last year, when they gave up 35.7 points per game and statistically had one of their worst defenses ever. That defense allowed opponents to convert 38.2 percent (73 of 191) of their third-down attempts.
"Third down is definitely going to be an emphasis this week," senior defensive end Marlon Walls said. "We've got to get to the quarterback."
This statistic often accurately measures a team's success. The SEC's top four teams in third-down conversion percentage defense last season (Florida, LSU, Alabama and Texas A&M) went a combined 45-8. Four of the SEC's five worst teams in this category posted losing records.
No. 20 Florida beat Tennessee 31-17 last week by going 10 of 18 on third down and converting its first five third-down opportunities in the second half. The Gators scored touchdowns on their first two second-half possessions and converted a third-and-10 situation on each of them.
"I didn't think we managed the critical situations, the critical downs, the critical stages of the game," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "A lot of times, the game can be shaped - whether you win or lose - by two to three plays. I didn't think we really managed those situations particularly well. You never know which two to three plays are going to make the difference in the football game."
The third-down problems caused enough concern that Walls went into the film room to see what he could have done differently in those situations.
"The first thing you've got to do as a defensive guy is look at yourself and see what you did on that play," Walls said. "What could I have done a little bit better? The defensive line, we were very close to impacting the quarterback on those plays. Just a swipe at the ball or the grab of a jersey could impact that throw."
Walls did get to the quarterback in one notable instance. On a third-and-3 play, Walls hit Florida's Jeff Driskel and forced him into throwing an interception that Devaun Swafford returned 62 yards for the game's first touchdown. Driskel broke his lower right leg in the process, knocking him out for the rest of the season.
But more often than not, the Vols haven't arrived in time to make the play.
Part of the problem is that Tennessee has faced mobile quarterbacks the last two weeks in Florida's Tyler Murphy and Oregon's Marcus Mariota. Murphy replaced Driskel last week and ran for the first down in a third-down situation five times, including a 7-yard touchdown on a third-and-6 play.
Although South Alabama has converted only 38 percent of its third-down opportunities, the Jaguars use two quarterbacks who can run. Ross Metheny has 22 carries for 99 yards and three touchdowns, while Brandon Bridge has rushed for 101 yards and one touchdown on 15 attempts.
"We have to do a great job," Jones said. "We have to be ready for anything and everything come Saturday."
Particularly on third down.