You've seen it happen: A baseball team is being no-hit through four or five innings, then somebody reaches base on a blooper and someone else beats out an infield dribbler. All of a sudden, the Hitless Wonders are pounding the ball like the Big Red Machine in its prime.
It could be that's what happened to Tennessee's football team last Saturday against Alabama. The Vols were virtually no-hit through the game's first 58 minutes, managing just 13 points. Once they tasted a little success, though, they became virtually unstoppable. They drove 87 yards for a touchdown on their final drive of regulation. They drove 25 yards for touchdowns on each of their first three overtime possessions. They drove 17 yards for a field goal in overtime No. 4, then came back with another 25-yard TD drive in overtime No. 5.
After gaining just 288 yards on their first 12 possessions of the Bama game, Tennessee gained 204 yards (out of a possible 212) on their final six possessions. No one was more encouraged by the Vols' big finish than offensive coordinator Randy Sanders.
''I think that's a great example of what they can do when they play like they can — when we don't make mistakes and don't do silly things to hurt ourselves,'' he said. ''We played pretty well in those overtimes.''
Why did the Vols play so poorly in regulation and so well in overtime?
My theory is this: Phillip Fulmer loves field-position football. Whereas Steve Spurrier's motto seems to be ''Any drive that doesn't produce a touchdown is a failure,'' Fulmer's motto seems to be ''Any drive that doesn't produce a turnover is a success.''
Once a game moves into overtime, however, field position is a moot point; all that matters is putting points on the board. So, Fulmer abandons his emphasis on field-position football and shifts into all-out scoring mode. The results are dramatic. Counting the South Carolina game, Tennessee has played six overtime periods this fall ... scoring five touchdowns and one field goal. How's that for productivity?
Based on the success Tennessee enjoyed in overtime vs. Alabama, Fulmer admitted this week that he's toying with the idea of opening things up a bit and using certain aspects of UT's two-minute offense at other times during the game. If he does, Tennessee will score points in bunches, just as it did in overtime vs. Alabama — which has a much better defense than Duke.
Now that the Vols proved vs. Alabama that they're capable of being explosive, their confidence level should be soaring this Saturday. And a confident offense is a relaxed offense. And a relaxed offense has a much better chance to be a productive offense.
Even with first-team tailback Cedric Houston sidelined, the Vol running game is in good hands with Jabari Davis, Corey Larkins and Gerald Riggs, Jr. And the passing game — particularly Casey Clausen throwing to James Banks — can be downright unstoppable when it gets cranked up.
Nothing happened in Tennessee's first six games to suggest to me that the Vols could be an offensive juggernaut. But that opinion changed last Saturday. The explosiveness the Big Orange showed in OT last weekend should carry over into this weekend's game, as well.
If it does, Duke is in for a world of hurt.
Vols Could Have Devil of a Time beating Duke
Due to the luck of the draw, I'm going to lay out a scenario this week explaining why the Vols, who are 26-point favorites, could lose this week to Duke. Just for the hell of it, I guess you could call me a Blue Devils' advocate.
Granted it's a difficult task. I could go for the letdown angle after playing an arch rival, but Tennessee is 10-0 after playing Alabama during Fulmer's reign as head coach. I could explain how Duke is a talented, dangerous opponent, but this isn't a basketball game.
With that qualification out of the way, there is real reason to be concerned about Duke. For instance: while the Vols are 4-1 in overtime games, they are only 1-4 following overtime games. Although Tennessee is a 26-point favorite, it has only scored 26 points in regulation one time this season — a 34-24 victory over Marshall.
As impressive as the Vols scoring 31 points in five overtimes was last week, it may not equate to increased point production against Duke. Once in overtime, the advantage is strictly with the offense not only in terms of field position but also in energy level. It takes more energy to play defense than offense and that is evident in any multiple overtime contest. The format that places the defense back on the field after surrendering a score also favors the offense which doesn't require the recovery time the defense does. It's no accident that Alabama, which has experienced its share of problems on offense, was virtually unstoppable until the fifth overtime.
What was lost in the delirium of beating Bama is the fact Tennessee continues to pile up a time of possession deficit that has reached nearly lethal levels of 38 minutes over its last three games and they are still having serious problems stopping the run. Admittedly, the Vols played better against the rush last week but Shaud Williams still picked up 168 yards against the Vols which is more than any back gained vs. UT all of last season. Tennessee also remains on the short end of the turnover ratio at minus-seven.
Enter Duke (2-6) aligned in a multiple offense, directed by three quarterbacks with specialty skills and fronted by a back that has out gained UT's top rusher this season. (And UT's to rusher, Cedric Houston, won't play Saturday.) Duke also enjoys a six-minute time of possession edge over opponents and are even in the turnover margin for the season.
Sure the Vols could attempt to pick up its offensive pace against Duke, but it won't provide the defense rest even if successful. If not successful, it compounds the problem and does nothing to establish the running game or balanced offense Tennessee so deperately needs.
In truth, most of the success Tennessee's has had in the hurry-up mode was against teams protecting leads which means they were giving UT wideouts more cushion. The real advantage its provides is not allowing opposing defenses to scheme or substitute so freely, but it can also result in communication breakdowns and turnovers. Example: Clausen's interception on first down at Auburn's 26 while marching for the game-tying touchdown.
Judging from the competitive 28-21 defeat last week against North Carolina State, Duke appears to have received an emotional boost from the coaching change that saw Ted Roof elevated to the Blue Devil helm on an interim basis. It wouldn't be the first time a team rallied around an interim coach in hopes he'd be named the head coach. By the way, Roof played on the Georgia Tech team that Tennessee tied 6-6 in 1985, a week after the Vols scored an emotional 16-14 victory over Bama. Is it an omen?
Having a new coach has also brought about changes in the Duke offense and defense, which means Tennessee can't be sure what to prepare for from the standpoint of plays and schemes. UT coaches do know that Duke ran the option last week with some success and it's time consuming for teams to prepare for the option because they see it so seldom.
Remember this is a Tennessee team that is two OT victories removed from a four-game losing streak and a 3-4 record. It's also notable that this is UT's homecoming which is enough in itself to make a team suspectible to an upset. Memphis almost pulled that trick in 1999 (losing 17-16) on UT's homecoming. The Tigers caught UT flat despite having upset them the last time the teams met. There's an old saying in the coaching fraternity that states: "I'd rather play on somebody else's homecoming than our own."
I could always trot out the upsets from season's past that indicate no opponent can be taken lightly — Rutgers in 1979, Army in 1986, and the aforementioned Memphis game in 1996 — but I'd rather make the case by posing a simple question. When was the last time you saw a truly terrible football team? And don't say Tennessee against Georgia. The Vols had a terrible game, but they're not a terrible team. Last week it was Georgia that had a terrible game and almost lost at home to UAB.
The point is that in today's age when the playing field has been leveled by scholarship limitations and a spreading of television wealth, there aren't any terrible teams or tremendous teams for that matter. The fact there's only two undefeated teams left this season clearly reflects that full blown reality.
If the Vols aren't fully focused on the task at hand, they could easily be dealt an embarrassing defeat. The challenge is keeping their focus on Duke after a five-overtime victory against Alabama and an upcoming trip to No. 2 Miami.
It's the losses you never see coming that hurt the most.