No. 18 Vols seek to shore up run defense against Gamecocks
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee must stop opponents from running wild to stay in the Southeastern Conference title race.
The 18th-ranked Volunteers (5-2, 2-2 SEC) are giving up 5.1 yards per carry and 215.3 yards rushing per game. They rank 105th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in run defense and have looked particularly vulnerable during their current two-game skid.
No. 9 Texas A&M rushed for 353 yards and No. 1 Alabama ran for 409 yards against Tennessee. The Vols allowed over 7 yards per carry in the 45-38 double-overtime loss to Texas A&M and yielded 8.5 yards per rush while falling 49-10 to Alabama .
''That's been a point of emphasis - stopping the run for the rest of the season,'' defensive tackle Kendal Vickers said. ''We know we're capable of it. We've just got to go out and execute.''
Tennessee has a chance to correct its issues on run defense Saturday at South Carolina (3-4, 1-4).
South Carolina averages 106.9 yards rushing per game and 3.28 yards per carry to rank last in the SEC and 122nd nationally in both categories.
The Gamecocks had 194 yards rushing and 201 yards passing last week in a 34-28 victory over Massachusetts . South Carolina coach Will Muschamp emphasized the need to avoid obvious passing situations Saturday that would enable Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett to wreak havoc.
''I think you always have to stay balanced, especially with a guy like Barnett,'' Muschamp said. ''He can change the game. We have to account for him in everything.
''When you stay balanced, it is very difficult on a defense because, you are sitting there thinking in your mind, `OK, I want to run a pass pressure and run an overload.' Well, if they run it the other way we've got a problem. That's why to me it is so important to be balanced in what you do.''
While South Carolina must watch out for Barnett, Tennessee must be careful to avoid allowing the big runs that have haunted this defense.
Tennessee has given up six carries of at least 37 yards this season, with five of those long runs coming in the Vols' last two games. Last year, Tennessee yielded six runs from scrimmage of at least 37 yards all season.
In its last two games, Tennessee gave up an 85-yard run to Alabama's Bo Scarbrough and a 71-yard carry to Texas A&M's Trayveon Williams, though the Williams carry ended in a fumble and touchback. The longest run from scrimmage Tennessee allowed last season was a 66-yarder by Georgia's Sony Michel.
''Explosive plays to me in the run game are runs of 12 or 15 (yards) or more,'' Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. ''Ours aren't 12 or 15 right now, they're 25 or 30. That's something we've got to get corrected, whether it's pursuit of the football, whether it's tackling or things like that.''
Injuries and off-field issues have hampered Tennessee's front seven on defense and limited its cohesiveness.
Defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie tore his pectoral muscle against Alabama, sidelining him for the rest of the season. Defensive tackle Danny O'Brien was dismissed from the team two days after the Texas A&M game. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, the team's leading tackler last year, played just four games before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.
Linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. has played in just two games due to a high ankle sprain, though he is expected to return this week.
Injuries aren't solely to blame for Tennessee's inability to stop the run. Players and coaches also have cited inconsistency, mental errors and miscommunication among other things.
Tennessee didn't play last week, giving the Vols extra time to work out those issues.
''No matter what individuals are on the football field, you need to play together as one,'' Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.
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