Smash-mouth football

After a steady diet of spread offenses, Tennessee defenders won't have to worry about deception and misdirection this Saturday. All they have to worry about is being blown off the ball and ground into the turf.

The Vols saw three variations of the spread in Game 2 vs. Oregon, Game 3 vs. Florida and Game 4 vs. UAB. Game 5 brings a totally different challenge. The 12th-ranked LSU Tigers will line up and try to knock Tennessee backwards. They may succeed, too.

LSU's five offensive line starters average 313.2 pounds per man. Tennessee's four defensive line starters average 277 pounds per man. Moreover, Tiger tailback Stevan Ridley (6-0, 226 pounds) is bigger than two of Tennessee's three starting linebackers.

Given the physical mismatch it enjoys, LSU is sure to come out and try to run the ball down Tennessee's throat from the opening snap.

"It's definitely going to be physical," Vol middle linebacker Nick Reveiz conceded. "It's going to be smash-mouth. They're going to come out and hit us in the mouth, and we're going to have to respond.

"It's going to be different. We've been playing spread offenses for the past three weeks. They (Tigers) aren't hiding anything. They're saying, 'We're going to come down and beat you, hit you in the mouth.' We're going to have to respond to it."

That's pretty much the way Vol defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox sees it, as well. He expects the Tigers to pound the ball between the tackles against a Tennessee front seven that has been shaky to date.

"I think these guys will incorporate the downhill runs, especially with their O-line," Wilcox said. "They're 300-plus (pounds) across the board and they will push you off the ball, so you've got to anchor.

"We've got to be physical upfront. It's going to be 'Who's going to be more physical?' That's the key to the game. It's going to be critical for us to play with great technique and hit all of our run fits. We're not as big as they are across the board, so we've got to be 100 percent on all of those other things."

LSU ranks dead last among the 12 SEC teams in passing offense, averaging just 110 yards per game. In fact, quarterback Jordan Jefferson may be more of a running threat than a passing threat.

"They've got an athletic guy at quarterback, so they incorporate some of the quarterback runs," Wilcox said. "I would expect that we might see both quarterbacks, although I'm not exactly sure."

Jefferson has completed just 54.4 percent of his passes with more interceptions (4) than touchdowns (2). His passer-efficiency rating of 97.2 ranks 12th among the SEC's 12 starting quarterbacks. Backup Jarrett Lee is 2 for 2 passing for 21 yards with a passer-efficiency rating of 188.2.

Naturally, Tennessee hopes to shut down - or at least slow down - the LSU ground attack and force the Tigers to rely on the mistake-prone Jefferson.

"Any game the first thing you've got to do is try to figure out a way to take away the runs," Wilcox said, "because when teams can run the ball consistently, it's a tough way to play defense. You've obviously got to incorporate that and give the guy (quarterback) some different looks to disguise what you're doing coverage-wise. And we've got to be able to make some plays in man and we've got to be able to get after the quarterback on third downs."

Most of all Tennessee has to be able to bring down ball-carriers better than it did last Saturday vs. UAB. The Vols' tackling in that game was horrendous. Head coach Derek Dooley was stunned.

"The Florida game, we tackled great," he said. "We didn't have a lot of missed tackles, and they (Gators) had a lot better skill guys that would cause more missed tackles (than the Blazers did). So it tells me it's mental. It's mental. It's mental energy. That's what it tells me."

The Vols better have their mental energy galvanized this Saturday because LSU's advantage in physical energy is sizable.

"They've got athletes all over the field," Wilcox said, "so we've got our work cut out for us."

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