Vols Offense Loses Balance

On the football recruiting trail that winds its way through inner cities, rural hamlets and high school hallways of America, Tennessee's offense is advertised as a multiple-formation attack that showcases a pro-style passing game built on a power-running platform.

Of greater interest to prospects is the long list of premier players populating Tennessee's high-octane offense during coach Phillip Fulmer's illustrious 12-year reign at UT — especially those that have since gone on to NFL glory and riches.

Chief among those high-profile personalities is Peyton Manning, who started his pro career with four straight 4,000-yard seasons to reach a passing pinnacle only achieved by Dan Marino. Manning is one of the League's most marketable and valuable players and, by contemporary standards, his control and knowledge of the game is unprecedented. Manning's seal of approval is an unassailable endorsement for the potent caliber and design integrity of UT's offensive system.

During his four years on campus, Manning was surrounded by such talent as Jamal Lewis, who recently broke the NFL's single-game rushing record, and high priced free agent Peerless Price, who was a standout at Buffalo four years before signing with Atlanta, where he aims to become Michael Vick's version of Marvin Harrison. Then you have such sterling backs as Travis Henry, James Stewart and Charlie Garner, along with receivers like Donte Stallworth, Kelley Washington and Cedric Wilson. There's stalwart linemen like Cosey Coleman, Fred Weary, Chad Clifton and Trey Teague.

Any program that can attract and develop these type of athletes requires no further defense of its offense. Tennessee's attack is versatile, flexible and tactically sound, as long as the Vols maintain balance between the pass and run. That's something UT has historically done under Fulmer, who abides by the belief: Strength punishes and speed kills. When both phases of the philosophy are in harmony it's a thing of beauty. When the two-prong approach is out of kilter it's rarely productive. Such was the case last season when the lack of polished receivers with big-play ability limited Tennessee's striking range and allowed opponents to overplay the run.

When Manning was rewriting the SEC record book and jumping through Heisman hoops as a senior at Tennessee, the Vols listed toward the pass averaging 321 yards per game through the air and 149 on the ground. They paid a price against Florida, as the Gators relentlessly pressured the pocket, and again in the Orange Bowl against Nebraska when Manning was injured and limited.

After Manning departed, the Vols rededicated themselves to better establishing the run and achieving balance. They did just that in 1998 behind an inexperienced quarterback operating an offensive unit that returned eight starters. Tennessee averaged 204 yards on the ground that year and 195 through the air. Although they averaged 71 fewer yards per game, they scored more points (33.2 to 32.9) and won more games (13), along with UT's first national title in 47 years. Another benefit of the more conservative approach was fewer turnovers, as the Vols had a plus-16 advantage in 1998 compared to minus three in 1997.

This season Tennessee is closer to being truly balanced than at any time since 1998, averaging 194.5 yards through the air and 188.2 on the ground. But that balance wasn't reflected in Saturday's game against South Carolina, as the Vols ran 36 times for 117 yards while passing 22 times for 149 yards. That discrepancy is particularly evident on first down as UT ran 20 times compared to only four passes to start a series.

If the Gamecocks weren't expecting Tennessee to run on first down, it's only because they weren't paying attention. Apparently they were because the Vols 20 runs produced only 44 yards while the four passes generated 55 yards.

To further appreciate the impact of the imbalance, consider that nine of the 20 runs resulted in two or fewer yards, two of those runs lost a combined five yards. Five of the first down runs gained three yards and two others gained four yards. Tennessee's biggest gain on first down on the ground was 11 yards. It was the only one of UT's 20 first down rushing attempts that picked up more than six yards. After the game, quarterback Casey Clausen complained the Vols used the tight end instead of the three wideout set most of the second half, but he didn't mention anything about the first down imbalance which was a larger part of the problem.

Meanwhile offensive coordinator attributed the decision to go to the power running game to Fulmer, however the Vols also failed to make effective use of play-action, especially on first down when South Carolina was creeping up to the line in anticipation of the run.

It's easy to fault Fulmer for going conservative, but it's the power running game he knows best and trusts most. It's the strategy he employed in the victory over Florida this season and in 2001. When faced with a tight game most coaches will opt to go with what they know and trust.

And it might have been successful if the Vols had simply passed more on first down, particularly the play-action variety. Picking up a few more first downs would have worn S.C.'s defense down sooner. As it was, the Gamecocks defense started to exhibit fatigue in overtime. This also coincided with Tennessee's insertion of the three wide receiver set, so it's debatable which played a bigger factor in South Carolina's eventually demise.

Another dynamic that may have been in play against South Carolina was the Lou Holtz factor. Every year against Tennessee, Holtz essentially throws down the gauntlet, challenging the Vols to beat him with power punches. Fulmer may take the challenge to heart and tend to swamp inside punches when he could outpoint his adversary by staying outside and using superior speed and skills. Certainly the ability to do some of both would frustrate his opponent and better exploit it's weaknesses as opposed to testing its strengths.

Further evidence of playing the game at South Carolina's pace is found in the final scores between these programs over the last four years, as the Vols have won contests 17-14, 17-10, 18-10 and 23-20 — after regulation play concluded with the score knotted 17-17. Those scoring totals in regulation for Tennessee average 17.25 per game in four seasons in which the Vols averaged 31.7, 30.8, 22.8 and 27.3.

In 1998, it made more sense to play conservatively as the Vols broke in Tee Martin and adjusted to the loss of Jamal Lewis at midseason. This year the Vols have a senior quarterback, a veteran line, talented albeit young wide receivers and a deep stable of tailbacks. The offense needs to be expanded enough to allow Clausen to spread his wings, but not at the expense of balance.

Next year's personnel at Tennessee will require a more patient approach and different solutions.


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