Bowl game gives Vols' porous defense chance at redemption
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee's defense has one last chance to redeem itself this year after staggering through the end of the regular season.
The Volunteers dealt with multiple injuries and never quite recovered, giving up 39.3 points per game in their last six regular-season matchups with Football Bowl Subdivision opponents. In its last three games, Tennessee allowed 400-plus yards rushing to Kentucky and Missouri as well as 416 yards passing to Vanderbilt.
Tennessee (8-4) hopes the end of the regular season helps the defense recharge heading into the Dec. 30 Music City Bowl with No. 24 Nebraska (9-3) at Nashville, Tennessee.
''You hit the reset button,'' Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. ''It's a fresh start. Bowls mean different things to different people. The first step to playing well in a bowl game is a desire to be there, and I sense that in our unit and our team.''
Shoop has endured a difficult season in his first year at Tennessee after successful stints as a coordinator at Vanderbilt (2011-13) and Penn State (2014-15). Each of his last five teams had ranked in the top 25 in total defense, but Tennessee ranks 109th out of 128 FBS programs in that category.
Injuries decimated a Tennessee defense that entered the season with high hopes, though Nebraska is taking nothing for granted. Nebraska's offense has its own issues, as quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.'s hamstring injury leaves his status uncertain for the bowl game.
''I think their struggles came from injuries,'' Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. ''They're getting guys back. They look good to me. They've got some really talented players.''
Tennessee lost linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Quart'e Sapp as well as tackles Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle plus safety Evan Berry to season-ending injuries. Reeves-Maybin, the Volunteers' leading tackler in 2015, played just four games this year.
Cornerback Cam Sutton missed six regular-season games and linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. has appeared in only seven games. Injuries forced Tennessee to use 10 different starting combinations in the secondary.
''To watch our style of play from the beginning of the season to the end of the season, it almost looks like two different teams,'' Shoop said.
Tennessee's vulnerability on defense became particularly evident the last three games of the regular season.
Kentucky fell 49-36 to Tennessee despite rushing for 443 yards, three shy of the Wildcats' 65-year-old school single-game record. In a 63-37 loss to the Vols , Missouri gained 740 total yards, the highest single-game total ever allowed by Tennessee. Vanderbilt beat Tennessee 45-34 by posting its highest single-game point total against an SEC opponent since 1971.
As he discussed the defense's struggles over the last three games, Shoop said that ''I own those. Those are on me.''
''Confidence and momentum are powerful things, and I think at some point maybe in the Kentucky or Missouri game we lost a little bit of confidence,'' Shoop said. ''I think we were a little worn down.''
Shoop noted that Tennessee still won two of those games but acknowledged the Vanderbilt performance ''leaves a sour taste in your mouth, there's no question about that.''
Tennessee has responded by adjusting its bowl practice approach to address the tackling problems that have hurt this defense.
''We're going to do more tackling than we ever have in terms of bowl preparation,'' Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said. ''It's a balancing act because you want to be fresh for the bowl game too, but when you look at bowl games as bowl season starts, it's usually dictated by special teams, by turnovers and by tackling. The last couple of bowl games we've won, we've excelled in those areas.''
Tennessee's players see the bowl game as an opportunity to make up for the mistakes they made during the regular season.
''Every day we come out there, we're trying to be better at run defense, pass defense and just be a complete defense, which we kind of failed to do the past few games,'' defensive end Corey Vereen said.
NOTE: Tennessee freshman defensive end Mykelle McDaniel isn't practicing with the team leading up to the bowl game as a disciplinary measure. Tennessee athletic department spokesman Ryan Robinson said McDaniel is expected to rejoin the team at the start of the spring semester. McDaniel is redshirting this season.
AP sports writer Eric Olson in Lincoln, Nebraska, contributed to this report.
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