KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Butch Jones understands the importance of forcing No. 2 Oregon’s offense to rely on extended drives instead of quick strikes.
He also realizes that’s easier said than done.
The Ducks (2-0) head into Saturday’s game with Tennessee averaging 62.5 points per game this season after ranking second nationally with 49.5 points per game last year. The average length of Oregon’s 17 touchdowns has been 22.9 yards.
“They’re as good as advertised, probably the most complete team I’ve seen in a number of years to date,” Jones said.
This represents by far the toughest test for a Tennessee defense that was vulnerable to big plays last season. The Volunteers (2-0) gave up seven touchdowns of at least 70 yards and 14 touchdowns of at least 40 yards a year ago.
The Vols have fared much better so far this year, but they haven’t faced an offense anywhere close to Oregon’s level. Tennessee blanked Football Championship Subdivision program Austin Peay 45-0 and forced seven turnovers in a 52-20 victory over Western Kentucky, but Oregon’s brisk pace will represent a major endurance test.
“We’re going to have to be able to withstand without substituting seven, eight, nine plays in a row,” Jones said. “Can our defensive front play winning football for eight, nine plays in a row without substituting?”
Some of the Vols know what’s in store.
Tennessee hosted Oregon three years ago and led 13-3 before the Ducks scored the game’s final 45 points. The 48-13 loss represents the last time Tennessee dropped a regular-season game to a non-conference opponent.
Among the current Tennessee defensive players who participated in that game were defensive ends Corey Miller and Jacques Smith plus linebacker Brent Brewer. Smith is expected back Saturday after missing the first two games of the season with a fractured right thumb.
No defensive players were made available to the media Monday. After the Western Kentucky game last week, the Vols said they’ve taken steps to prepare for fast-paced offenses such as Oregon’s point-a-minute attack.
Tennessee’s defensive linemen lost weight and added quickness during the offseason. They also benefited from the fact Tennessee’s offense has adopted a faster tempo.
“I was like 280-something in the spring and I’m down to like 260-something,” Tennessee defensive end Marlon Walls said Saturday. “That up-tempo offense that we practiced against every day did a great job of getting us in shape. I know we’re going to push it up even more this week, and I was just telling the guys that we’re going to push it this week. We’re going to really go out there and see how tired we can really get.”
Of course, Jones’ offense doesn’t operate at quite the same pace as Oregon’s attack.
Last season, Oregon ran 15 more offensive plays per game than Jones’ Cincinnati team despite trailing the Bearcats by 53 seconds in average time of possession. So far this season, Tennessee has run three fewer total offensive plays than Oregon despite having an edge of over eight minutes in average time of possession.
Oregon has averaged 70 snaps per game this year while maintaining possession for just over 20 ½ minutes per game. Toledo is the only Football Bowl Subdivision program that ranks behind Oregon in time of possession. The Ducks are gaining an astounding 9.5 yards per play.
“They’re going to make their big plays,” Jones said. “That’s a function of what they do. That’s part of their offense. It’s not letting one big play equal two, equal three, equal four and have a snowball effect. ... We have to force them to make them drive the football on us, and that’s very challenging.”
Oregon State at Utah
• When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
• TV: Fox Sports 1