Tennessee Volunteers Football: 5 Keys to the Game vs. South Carolina
The Tennessee Volunteers have a chance to change the tone of their season with a win this Saturday. Standing in their way is an angry South Carolina team, whose national and conference title hopes have been shot with two straight losses.
What do the Vols need to do in order to get the upset?
If Tennessee can eliminate its own errors, this game can be a lot closer than many think. The only problem is that the Vols haven't had an error-free (or nearly free) game since NC State, nearly two months ago.
You can't win in the SEC with numerous unforced errors. South Carolina knows that after losses to LSU and Florida. Will Tennessee be the third team in a row to take advantage of the Gamecocks? Or has South Carolina conquered its kryponite?
Here are my five keys to the game for the Vols.
Tyler Bray Has to Perform
In the biggest moments, the (supposed) best player has to shine. In the biggest moments, the quarterback has to step up. Tyler Bray is both of these and has yet to show his stuff against the best.
With a much softer November coming up, South Carolina provides the last opportunity for Bray to show his ability against the best. Thus far, he hasn't fared well.
Against the SEC, Bray has six touchdowns to eight interceptions and has completed 51.4 percent of his passes.
Yes, the Volunteers have played some of the elite conference foes this year, but even if you include the lower-tier teams, Bray has 21 touchdowns to 20 interceptions and has completed 51.6 percent of his passes against the SEC in his career.
Clearly, Tennessee needs a big day from the junior quarterback, who's capable of putting on great performances.
In the second half of the 2010 game at South Carolina, Bray officially took over as the starter. He completed nine of 15 passes for 159 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He came in to the game loose and a little cocky. He needs to find that swagger again.
Barring a blowout on the part of Tennessee, if Justin Worley enters the game at all on Saturday, it's a sign that this goal wasn't met.
For a team ranked No. 13 in the BCS, South Carolina is more than capable of getting turnover happy. The Vols need to make sure they take advantage and snatch a few possessions away from Steve Spurrier's offense.
Tennessee has turned the ball over 15 times this year, but the 6-2 Gamecocks have turned over nearly as much, 14. Is South Carolina flirting with disaster? It seems like the ball-hawking Byron Moore has a chance for a big game.
When the Volunteers have had their greatest success this season—NC State and Georgia—they've not only gotten turnovers, but they've converted them into points.
Against the Wolfpack, Tennessee scored 16 of its 35 points off of turnovers. Against the Bulldogs, 20 of the Vols' 44 off of turnovers.
The Vols offense thrives off of high energy and momentum, and if the Big Orange hopes to pull the upset, they need to force turnovers and convert them into points.
Intense Focus on the Kicking Game Details
Quietly, Michael Palardy has emerged as a leading candidate for Most Improved Player on the Tennessee Volunteers. He now controls both kicking and punting duties and is doing both very well.
After Matt Darr's stellar 13-yard punt at Mississippi State, Palardy has taken over the role and been absolutely blasting punts, averaging 46.9 yards per punt (which would be good for second in the SEC had he been punting all season).
He's also five of six on field goals this year, but his two missed extra points early in the season have smeared his otherwise solid 2012 campaign.
Tennessee will be a road underdog this weekend. Attention to details, especially those in the kicking game, can make a huge difference.
If the offense has trouble in the early going, a timely 50-yard boot from Palardy can give the defense the opportunity to make a big play and change the course of the game.
Michael Palardy—a key advantage in an SEC game. Who knew??
Limit Marcus Lattimore
Easier said than done, right?
Marcus Lattimore is one of the best running backs in the country, and his performances correlate with the success of South Carolina. When he rushes for 85 yards, the Gamecocks are 5-0 this year. They're 1-2 otherwise.
The key to stopping—rather limiting—Lattimore is to slow him down and gang tackle. The guy doesn't go down on the first hit. All of those big hits that defenders love to to deliver are ineffective against the tremendous strength of Lattimore.
Team pursuit is essential, and it's one of the advantages of playing so many nickel packages, as the Volunteers do. That substitutes a linebacker for an extra defensive back, ensuring Lattimore can't run by Tennessee defenders.
With only one rush of over 40 yards on the year for Lattimore, big running plays shouldn't be an area of concern for Tennessee, but wrapping up a bruising runner will be.
Eliminate Mental Errors on Defense
Very few fans berate Zach Rogers because he's not an electric receiver. Even fewer are angry with the production of converted linebacker Channing Fugate. Why?
Because those players have great focus, fight hard and maximize their potential on every play. We don't scold a player who gets beaten if he's busting it and giving it all he has got for that Power T on his helmet.
But was does get the blood boiling is when a player, unit or entire defense, continually gets beaten because of communication breakdowns and mental errors. You have to at least give yourself a chance to make the play!
From the first game in Atlanta to last Saturday's bout in Knoxville, there continues to be back-breaking mental errors on defense that cripple the headway that the team has made. Who was to know where the Volunteers would be without the wide open receivers and plethora of easy runs?
I understand that the 3-4 defense brings its own growing pains, but Tennessee has been working on the transition since January and is now entering Week 9—it's time to be in the right place.
If South Carolina beats Tennessee on Saturday, it needs to be because they could run faster and jump higher. It can't be because the Vols didn't know who to cover.