KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee keeps losing the football whenever victory seems within its grasp.
After getting off to a 2-0 start while committing just one turnover in its first two games, Tennessee has coughed up the ball eight times during its three-game skid. In a 10-9 loss to Florida last week, the lone touchdown occurred after the Gators recovered a fumble at the Volunteers 30-yard line.
Tennessee (2-3) heads into Saturday's game with Chattanooga (3-2) knowing it must be more careful with the football.
"You can't win when you turn the ball over," Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley said. "I, myself, have to do a better job personally. I take full responsibility for those plays. We've just got to protect the ball a little better."
Tennessee's turnovers have come at particularly inopportune times.
In a 34-10 loss to Oklahoma, Tennessee trailed 27-10 early in the fourth quarter and had the ball at the Sooners 4. A touchdown would have cut the lead to 10 with about 11 minutes remaining. Instead, Julian Wilson picked off a Worley pass and returned it 100 yards for a clinching Oklahoma touchdown.
Georgia was clinging to a 28-25 lead over Tennessee in the fourth quarter when running back Jalen Hurd fumbled a handoff in the end zone. Josh Dawson pounced on the ball for a Georgia touchdown that proved critical in the Bulldogs' 35-32 victory.
Last week, Tennessee led Florida 9-0 late in the third quarter when Jalen Tabor sacked Worley, knocked the ball loose and recovered the fumble at the Tennessee 30. Five plays later, Florida's Matt Jones reached the end zone from 2 yards out.
"Some teams have surprised us with what we've run, some things we haven't seen on film and then they go out and run something different," Worley said. "I think I've forced the ball a little bit more, made a couple of stupid throws that I wish I could take back."
The Vols had a couple more costly turnovers against Florida.
Tennessee led 3-0 early in the third quarter when a Jalen Reeves-Maybin interception gave the Vols the ball at the Florida 13. The Vols wasted the scoring opportunity when Worley was picked off by Vernon Hargreaves in the end zone.
After Florida took the lead, Tennessee converted a fourth-and-10 to reach Gators territory before Keanu Neal intercepted a Worley pass intended for Alton "Pig" Howard at the Florida 23 with 51 seconds left. Vols coach Butch Jones indicated Howard's route-running contributed to that interception.
"We have to be a team that doesn't beat ourselves," Jones said in wrapping up the Florida game, "and I thought at times we made things very, very challenging."
Some mistakes may be attributable to Tennessee's youth. Tennessee's offense against Florida featured five true freshman starters: Hurd, wide receiver Josh Malone, guard Jashon Robertson, tackle Coleman Thomas and tight end Ethan Wolf. Opposing pass rushers frequently have raced through Tennessee's inexperienced line to put pressure on Worley, which has led to many of the senior quarterback's turnovers.
Jones says Tennessee will protect the football better when it corrects the "fine details" that can include everything from better decision-making to improved execution.
"That's every individual being accountable," Jones said. "And it starts with me. It starts with our coaches. Put it all on me. I'm the head football coach."