Tennessee dominates 1st half, struggles to close out games

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee has been the Southeastern Conference's most dominant team in the first half of games this season.

But the Volunteers haven't been nearly as effective after halftime.

Tennessee (5-4) is outscoring opponents 192-98 in the first half for a plus-94 point differential that is tied for 11th among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams and leads the SEC, according to STATS LLC.

The trend could continue Saturday when the Vols host North Texas (1-8), which has been outscored 227-53 in the first half and 101-6 in the first quarter.

''We preached throughout the offseason in the weight room and throughout fall camp coming in and starting fast,'' quarterback Joshua Dobbs said. ''When we start fast, it gives you a jump start. It just creates momentum for your team, whether you're home or away. Starting fast is definitely critical.''

The first-half yardage discrepancies have been even more one-sided.

Tennessee outgained Kentucky 144-2 in the first quarter of a 52-21 victory, though the score was tied 7-7 at the end of the first period because the Wildcats had a 77-yard fumble return. Tennessee outgained South Carolina 177-29 in the first quarter of a 27-24 triumph last week, and the margin was 177-(-1) for the first 13-plus minutes.

''It's especially important on the road,'' offensive tackle Kyler Kerbyson said. ''It really does help once you score a touchdown (on the road), it gets things a little quieter, you're able to hear more. That's a big emphasis for us - to get that first punch in and start the game off right.''

Yet the Vols are just one game above .500 because of their inability to close out opponents. They are only outscoring teams 124-120 after halftime, and have been outscored 65-41 in the fourth quarter and overtime. Tennessee has blown two-touchdown leads in three of its four losses.

''You have to be focused for 60 minutes, and it takes a mature football team to be able to do that,'' Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.

The South Carolina game exemplified Tennessee's second-half struggles. Trailing 17-0 late in the second quarter, the Gamecocks tied the game in the third before the Vols won with a fourth-quarter field goal.

Tennessee was in danger of becoming the first team in four years to lose at least four games in which it had led by at least 13 points. The last team to that was the 2011 Texas A&M squad, which dropped five games that way, according to STATS LLC.

Dobbs said after the South Carolina game that ''we kind of let the foot off the pedal,'' though that opinion wasn't unanimous.

''I don't think we ever let our foot off the pedal,'' Kerbyson said. ''That isn't the way our offense works. I think their defensive scheme and the way they were sending (the) blitz hurt us a bit - and definitely the turnovers. (Their defense) coming up with big plays on first down is what hurt our drives. It really wasn't us giving in or anything like that.''

Kerbyson also said Tennessee's second-half issues aren't a matter of the Vols getting worn down. Kerbyson added that ''we take pride in that as our offense, to make them tired and we're not. We don't even say those words. We just say `winded.' ''

While they may have different opinions on the exact cause of their second-half struggles, the Vols know they need to correct their second-half lulls.

---

AP College Football: www.collegefootball.ap.org

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.