Tennessee ranks No. 1 in the SEC — and No. 4 nationally — in pass defense, but on Saturday at Missouri, the Vols will find out if their untested secondary is legitimately stout or just paper champions through 10 weeks of the season.
Tennessee has faced the third-fewest attempts in country (203), allowing just 150 yards per game. Florida and Alabama are the only two teams to pass for more than 200 yards against the Vols this season, but Missouri, with gunslinging quarterback Drew Lock, presents a totally new challenge.
“We have played some pretty good receivers and quarterbacks this year and whether they decide to throw the ball or not we are going to defend it to our best ability,” safety Micah Abernathy said.
The Tigers average 314.9 passing yard per game, as Lock has thrown as league-leading 31 touchdowns. He’s completed 13 passes of more than 50 yards — easily the most in the nation. He has at least three passing scores over the last five games.
“I think we have a pretty good secondary and our guys are playing with confidence,” Vols defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. “But I think we’ll be really tested this week and know more about ourselves after this game.”
Missouri has trio of dynamic wideouts, including J’Mon Moore, who had 9 catches for 134 yards against Tennessee in 2016. The Tigers also utilize an impressive freshman tight end, as Albert Okwuegbunam is second on the team in touchdowns with seven.
The sheer “wide variety” and volume of playmakers concerns Shoop, especially with the way Lock has played in recent weeks. “It almost looks like a different team than what was playing at the beginning of the year,” Shoop said, noting Mizzou’s five-game losing streak earlier this season.
“They are all in sync, they play fast — we learned that last year.”
Boy, did Tennessee ever.
In 2016, the Vols allowed a school-record 740 yards and 41 first downs in the 63-37 shootout win over Missouri. The Tigers ran an astounding 120 plays, and both Shoop and head coach Butch Jones explaining that the biggest difficult isn't stopping the pass or run, but matching Mizzou's tempo.
As Shoop noted, Missouri’s heavy usage of RPOs actually simplifies the scheme, but the fact the Tigers oftentimes run snaps under 7-10 seconds makes communication and eye-discipline critical in limiting explosive plays.
“We’ve got to get up, get our eyes to the sideline, get lined up correctly,” Shoop said.
“The analogy I used is the plays themselves are pretty simple, but the tempo that they go is like warp speed. So it’s like someone giving you an elementary math problem but asking you really quickly, ‘And you’re like what did you say?’”
Tennessee has tried to simulate Missouri’s no-huddle offense in practice, but with its own depth issues, that’s been a real challenge, per Jones.
“They do a create job of creating space and making you play in space, tackle in space” Jones said.
“It’s hard to simulate it, but we’ve tried to be creative in how we (practice). I think it helps that a lot of these players played against it last year. They understand the challenges associated with playing this type of offense.