Tennessee has strengthened its third-down defense, correcting major weakness from recent years

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KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Third-down situations suddenly are cause for cheer rather than fear at Tennessee.

Tennessee opponents have converted just seven of their 31 third-down situations through the first two weeks of the season, a remarkable turnaround for a defense that struggled in those scenarios the last few years. Tennessee ranked ninth or lower in the Southeastern Conference in third-down conversion defense each of the last four seasons.

"We wanted to be better on third down," Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson said. "Pretty much, that's the money down."

That improved third-down defense will face its biggest test of the season Saturday when the Vols play at No. 4 Oklahoma (2-0) and attempt to end their recent run of road futility against ranked foes. Tennessee has lost its last 19 road games against Top 25 teams since beating No. 10 Georgia 51-33 in 2006.

Tennessee (2-0) has upgraded its third-down efficiency on both sides of the ball. Tennessee's offense has converted 47 percent of its third-down situations this year, up from 36 percent last year. In a 34-19 victory over Arkansas State last week, Tennessee's offense was 9 of 18 on third down, including 9 of 14 in the first three quarters.

But the Tennessee defense's progress on third down has been particularly noteworthy. Tennessee ranks 13th among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams in third-down conversion defense. The Vols ranked 92nd in that category last season, when they allowed opponents to convert on third down 42.5 percent of the time.

Vols coach Butch Jones cites the defense's improved speed and "the ability to impact the quarterback" as the chief reasons for Tennessee's third-down turnaround. Although Johnson is the only player on Tennessee's front seven who started more than three games last season, the Vols are doing a better job of getting to the backfield.

"Our defensive line is getting tremendous pressure up front and just impacting the quarterback," cornerback Cam Sutton said. "That makes our jobs easier covering receivers downfield."

The Vols recorded the fewest sacks in the SEC each of the last two years, but they posted three sacks against Arkansas State. Even though they only had one sack in a season-opening 38-7 rout of Utah State, the Vols consistently pressured Aggies quarterback Chuckie Keeton. Tennessee also has 15 tackles for loss, putting the Vols on pace to crush last year's total of 65.

Tennessee must continue applying that kind of pressure to have a shot against Oklahoma, which has outscored its first two opponents 100-23.

"They're physical," Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight said. "Week in and week out, they play in the SEC. They go up against good competition. They have a bunch of guys who can fly around. It's going to be a challenge for us. We look forward to it."

Tennessee even got its home crowd involved in its quest to improve its third-down defense. Each time an opposing offenses faces third down, the Neyland Stadium scoreboard puts up the message "Third Down For What" as a remixed version of the DJ Snake & Lil John song "Turn Down For What" plays over the loudspeaker. Country singer Lee Greenwood was even spotted wearing a "3rd Down For What" T-shirt during his halftime performance at the Arkansas State game.

The Vols now must try to maintain their third-down momentum in a much different environment as they play their first road game of the season.

"When we're at home, our third downs are crazy," Johnson said. "It (isn't) going to be like that at away games. Our sideline's going to produce all that. ... We'll look to our sideline to get all the energy we need."


AP Sports Writer Cliff Brunt in Norman, Oklahoma, contributed to this report.

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