In the wake of a heartbreaking loss that preceded Halloween, the Vols will be looking to exorcise some demons before heading into the last quarter of the season. It is crucial that Jeremy Pruitt has his guys focused and ready going forward if Tennessee is going to get a bowl bid. Saturday’s game versus UNC-Charlotte will be the perfect opportunity to work out any kinks and tie up up any loose ends before attempting to win two games out of three to ensure that luxury. Here are four things the Vols can work on against Charlotte:
1. The Deep Game
The Vols’ most impressive passing performance came against Auburn, in which Jarrett Guarantano threw for 328 yards. The highlight of his performance was the ability to hit his receivers consistently on 50/50 balls. The Vols were able to draw up one-on-one coverage and effectively attack. Since that game, teams have been reluctant to play Tennessee’s physical receivers in man coverage. Offensive coordinator Tyson Helton will have an opportunity to provide a gameplan with timing routes and other plays that need time to develop. The Vols’ passing game became an extension of their run game last week versus South Carolina. With a healthy dose of screens and hitches, the Vols were able to move the chains. However, they failed to connect deep and bust any coverage the Gamecocks gave them. The plan worked for South Carolina.
The Vols will need to keep teams honest and challenge the opposition deep going forward. The whole collective will have to be on the same page. Whether that means better awareness from Guarantano or better blocking assignments from the offensive line, Tennessee will have to attack the deep third of the defense to pose a real threat. They certainly have the receivers to do so. Charlotte is right outside the top-100 in pass efficiency defense, giving up 12.5 yards per completion and 228.9 per game.
2. Defending The Run
The Vols will have their hands full next week trying to defend Kentucky and Benny Snell. This week, they will have another Benny to attend to. Benny Lemay, Charlotte’s best player, will provide an adequate clone for emulating a dynamic running back. The only difference being that Charlotte obviously lacks in a supporting cast. Yet, the Vols’ biggest weakness right now is stopping the run. They gave up 224 rushing yards to South Carolina. Rico Dowdle had 140 himself, averaging 10 YPC.
For the Vols to make a bowl bid, this leak will have to be dammed. Lemay is currently No. 31 in the FBS in all-purpose yardage. The do-it-all back has 745 yards on the ground and 226 receiving. While Charlotte poses no real threat to defeat Tennessee, Lemay can still expose the Vols shaky defensive front. Stopping Lemay will be key to taking a step forward, to the point where the defense can contain the likes of Snell and others the Vols may face.
3. Making Plays Behind The Line Of Scrimmage
This problem is closely related to the aforementioned run defense. The Vols are outside the top-100 in creating tackles for loss. Their front seven has looked good in spots, but they lack a consistent, concerted effort when playing stiff competition. Kyle Phillips and Alexis Johnson, Jr. have had good individual performances. Daniel Bituli has been fine, but where is Darrell Taylor hiding? Outside the Auburn game, the defensive front has failed to be a force.
They will need to provide a consistent presence going forward. Phillips and Johnson have a minimum of four games left. Can they make it five? Charlotte is tied for 118th in the country in giving up TFLs, allowing 7.8 per game. These seniors have a chance to get a real confidence boost by forcing their will upon the 49ers and living in their backfield, something the Vols will need to do more of in order to see a 13th game.
4. Improving The OL
The offensive line has steadily improved since the beginning of the year. The steps have been incremental, but progress has been made. The unit is giving up a modest two sacks per game. Last week’s game may have been their best performance. For Tennessee to finish strong, the offensive line will have to continue their progression. They will get a chance to take another step forward Saturday against the nation’s sixth-best rushing defense. Yes, you read that correctly. The Charlotte 49ers are currently ranked sixth in rushing defense. They boast an impressive 89.8 YPG average. Perhaps that statistic is skewed a bit due to their porous pass defense. But it’s not like teams aren’t rushing on the 49ers. Opponents have rushed 232 times against them. No matter the conference, this is an impressive stat. The Vols have the better talent up front, but execution will be the difference.
Tennessee has the stable of backs to run effectively. They have a tough and accurate quarterback who can deliver, given the protection. The receivers are their best and deepest unit. The defense has lacked consistency and has yet to excel at home versus a conference opponent. Saturday will be the perfect dress rehearsal to try to put all these things together. If the Vols want to go bowling there won’t be any room for error after this week.