“We are going to be completely different,” Mike Bajakian said. “Hopefully, Iowa gets a copy of this: We are going to be wishbone, running some option with Josh Dobbs’ feet!”
The coordinator was joking, of course. The Vols are not overhauling their offensive system. Thanks to a 32-day gap between the regular-season finale at Vanderbilt and the Jan. 2 bowl game, however, Bajakian has been doing some serious tweaking.
“Any time you have an extra week to prepare – as in a bye-week situation, or multiple weeks as in this case for a bowl game – you’re always going to have some wrinkles that are different,” the Vol aide said. “But the nuts and bolts, the meat and potatoes of the offense, doesn’t change. What we do is what we do.”
Having played 12 games with the same “nuts and bolts,” Tennessee isn’t planning any significant changes for the bowl contest. The staff is focused on fixing the things the Vols already do rather than adding new things to do.
“We’ve always emphasized that it’s not about the scheme; it’s about how we play – effort, tempo, things like that,” Bajakian said. “Yeah, we’ll have a couple of wrinkles here and there, but our guys understand that it’s more about playing our style of football than anything else.”
One thing Tennessee’s staff hopes to change during bowl preparation is Tennessee’s tendencies. Teams become predictable during a 12-game regular season, so Vol staffers will “self scout” to make sure Iowa won’t know what play is coming based on Tennessee’s personnel, its alignment or the down and distance.
“You look at some things you did well, some things you didn’t do as well, some tendencies you may have shown,” offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. “You look at some things you’d like to work on and you look at adding some things – somewhat like what we did throughout the year with Justin Worley being injured and Dobbs’ package being able to grow a little bit more.”
Like Bajakian, Mahoney said the basic attack won’t change, noting: “Sometimes you have to careful that you don’t add too much and get away from the meat and potatoes, the fundamental things you need to do.”
Reviewing 12 regular-season game films gives staffers an idea which new plays might work in the bowl game. It also shows them which plays were consistently unproductive and need to be scrapped.
“It helps us take out some things, too, that maybe weren’t game-ready,” receivers coach Zach Azzanni told InsideTennessee. “We can kind of chop the offense down a little bit, focus on the things we know we can improve on, instead of having a whole gang of things.”
Helping Tennessee’s offensive preparation for the TaxSlayer Bowl is the fact Iowa’s defense has changed very little during Kirk Ferenz’ tenure as head coach.
“Iowa’s a team that’s done the same thing schematically for a number of years,” Azzanni said. “They do it really, really well, so we don’t have to come up with a bunch of creative things. We play what we play and they play what they play. That’s kind of how it is.”
Having a month to prepare for the TaxSlayer Bowl is especially helpful for Tennessee’s offense this year. That’s because the Vols are scrambling to restructure their receiver corps now that Marquez North and Jason Croom have been ruled out for the bowl game.
“We can scheme up certain things to get guys where we want ‘em because we’ve got more time than we would on a regular game week,” Azzanni said. “We don’t have to pencil a guy in (and say) ‘You’re going to play this the whole game.’ We can move guys around. We have time to get them right that way.”
Like Tennessee’s offense, Iowa’s offense is making some adjustments during the month between the regular-season finale and the bowl game. Two Vol defensive coaches expect to see some new things from the Hawkeyes.
“They can change some things up, put in some different things,” defensive coordinator John Jancek said. “They’ll look at things that hurt us (during the regular season) and try to implement some of those.”
Defensive line coach Steve Stripling agrees that the offenses should benefit most from the long break between the end of a regular season and a bowl game.
“It would,” Stripling told InsideTennessee. “On defense you know they have extra time and they’ll have some special plays.”
Having coached against Iowa many times during three decades as an assistant in the Big Ten, however, Stripling is confident the Hawkeyes won’t be throwing a whole lot of new wrinkles at the Vol defense on Jan. 2.
“I know the Iowa mentality,” Stripling said. “They’re not going to be into a lot of that stuff. They’re just going to be into doing what they do.”
Ironically, the Hawkeyes are so basic compared to the many spread attacks Tennessee faced during the regular season, they’ll be harder to prepare for than most foes. That’s why one Vol aide believes the long lead-up to the bowl game will be a bigger benefit for the Big Orange defense.
“For the most part, it’s going to be (a plus) for us on defense because we haven’t had many reps against the type of personnel they (Hawkeyes) are going to bring into the game,” linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said. “We don’t see much of what they do. This is as good of a downhill-run team as you’re going to face.”
Whereas most offenses try to create running lanes by spreading the defense, Iowa’s attack is more about running over you than running around you.
“Their run game kind of mirrors what Vanderbilt does, and a lot of what Alabama does,” Thigpen said. “They just line up and run the ball downhill. You just don’t see that much. Eighty percent of the teams we see are (making the defense play) nickel and sub (packages). This team (allows a defense to play) 70 or 80 percent base personnel.”
Tennessee’s secondary coach also believes Vol defenders are benefiting from the long build-up to the TaxSlayer Bowl but for a different reason.
“I think it gives us an opportunity to get healthy,” Willie Martinez said. “That’s what time gives us. It gives us time to slow it down a little bit and focus on things we didn’t do well and make sure we address those in practice.”
Martinez dismisses the notion that having four weeks to prepare for a bowl favors the offensive team.
“I don’t think there’s any advantages or disadvantages to either one,” he said, “but I think the rest gives us an opportunity to get some other guys more reps and get the (starting) guys a chance to get healed up and ready to play in the game.”