Searching For Vols Vanishing Running Game

It was that beloved baseball sage Yogi Berra who said: "Ninety percent of baseball is half mental." That philosophy, apart from the math, also applies to football, and it's at the core of Tennessee's quest to upset Miami on Saturday.

To wit: The 13-point underdog Volunteers are banking on the belief that they haven't played their best ball yet and if it comes in the Orange Bowl this weekend, it might be enough to trigger a stunner.

"That 'excellent game' is still out there for us to play," Fulmer said. "And I'm hoping it takes place this weekend. We have a chance to have a special November if we can finish (the season) strong."

Actually the Vols have a second chance to have an excellent season. The first occurred with Tennessee's September victory in the Swamp which, combined with catching Georgia at home, put UT in the driver's seat of the SEC East. Not only did the Vols fail to capitalize on the opportunity, they turned in their worst performance on the season. That 41-14 setback at home followed a loss to Auburn and appeared to end the Vols title hopes. However a resurgence by the Gators that included a victory over Georgia, pushed Tennessee back into the chase. It would be remiss not to add the Vols also helped themselves with a couple of come-from-behind overtime victories over South Carolina and Alabama.

Now Tennessee can parlay those winning efforts into a title run through the homestretch of the 2003 campaign if it is somehow able to defeat Miami. That appears to be a herculean challenge considering that the Canes strength is in the trenches where their physical style favors the run on offense and stopping the run of defense.

"Miami plays a physical game," Fulmer said. "They've got the skill players that can return kicks or make great plays in the passing game, but the thing they do the best is run the football and play physical defense. First and foremost they're fast and physical, but then they're skilled as well."

Unfortunately, those strengths happen to correspond to Tennessee's weaknesses which could prove a lethal mix given Miami's emotional state following an embarrassing upset against Virginia Tech last week. Add the Vols minus six turnover ratio for the year and the odds of a Tennessee upset seem remote.

Fulmer is taking the right approach with his players by pointing out that their best performance is still inside, waiting to be summoned. Obviously, he's hoping the Vols will be able to spin the cylinder and land on a live round this weekend because the likelihood of such an occurrence is like playing Russian roulette. True Tennessee hasn't put together that elusive "complete game" yet this year, but they may well have already played their best football.

When the Vols had early success balancing the offense, establishing the run and stopping the run over its first three contests, many skeptics chalked it up to the quality of the opponents or, in the case of Florida, the lack of an established quarterback.

With the aid of hindsight, we now know that those victories were actually quite impressive and were clearly a cut above anything Tennessee has done since. Fresno State, Marshall and Florida are all enjoying winning seasons and a combined 17-10 record. Marshall upset a power running team ranked in the top five at Kansas State. Florida has strung together wins at LSU, Arkansas and over Georgia in Jacksonville.

In contrast, Tennessee stumbled to a 3-2 mark against South Carolina, Auburn, Georgia, Alabama and Duke which have a combined record of 23-22. Two of UT's three wins required a total of six overtime periods.

Clearly UT's first three games were at least as tough as it's next five, but that's not reflected in the Volunteers performance. The mystery is why would Tennessee play better early against tougher opponents when logic tells us it should be the other way around, given the number of inexperienced players UT has used on both sides of the ball.

Amazingly, that's not the case. In fact, in most major categories the Vols were decidedly better in the season's first three games than they have been over the next five. Examples: Tennessee averaged 212 rushing yards per game in the first three contests and only 107 yards per game since. UT surrendered just 53 rushing yards on average in the first three games and have given up 223 yards per contest since. That two-to-one margin is also reflected in scoring defense as the Vols gave up 13 points per game in the first three contests and 27 points per game since. Tennessee has recorded 19 sacks for the season and 12 occurred in the first three games. Tennessee scored an average of 27 points in the first three games and 23 since, but averaged only 17 points a contest in regulation during that stretch with 37 points coming in overtime.

In time of possession, the Vols kept the ball an average of 34:37 in the first three games and only 24:41 in the last five contests. In fact, Tennessee's deficit in time of possession for the last five games is an incredible 51:26 which translates to a deficit of 10:25 a game. Essentially, that means the Vols offense has played four games in the last five while the defense has played six.

There's been a lot said this season about returning to Tennessee football, but the last five games are as far as you can get from Tennessee football. Remember when it was almost routine for the Vols to take over a game in the late stages with time consuming drives that lasted eight, nine, ten minutes and demoralized opponents? Well this year, Tennessee has had only four drives of five minutes or more and three of those came in the first three games. Tennessee's longest drive of the season was 5:46 and took place in the season opener. The last drive of at least five minutes in duration (5:27) was in the second quarter of the South Carolina game.

Since that drive, which ended in a field goal, the Vols have only had one drive that lasted at least four minutes — 4:33 in the first half of the Auburn game. Since that drive, the Vols have gone 26 quarters and 44 possessions without a single drive of four minutes in duration. Remarkably, the longest drive Tennessee has had during those 44 possessions was 3:21 last week against Duke. By contrast, Tennessee had seven possessions that lasted at least three minutes against Florida alone.

Despite being ranked No. 17 and No. 18 in the USA Today/ESPN and AP polls respectively, Tennessee doesn't show up in the top 20 nationally in any category except punting where it ranks No. 4 with a 42.8 per game average. In the three most significant categories of turnover ratio, rushing offense and rushing defense, Tennessee ranks No. 96, No. 61 and No. 71, respectively, among the nation's 111 Division I teams. The Vols don't even make the cut of the better half nationally in those meaningful measures of success while they rank No. 10, No. 8 and No. 9 in the SEC. In kick returns UT is No. 55 nationally and it's No. 40 in punt returns. The Vols rank in the top five in only three of 18 categories kept by the SEC — No. 1 in net punting, No. 4 in pass defense and No. 4 in sacks. In first downs the Vols rank No. 11 in the SEC and they rank No. 10 in penalty yards.

The decline of productivity this season reflects a general downturn for the program in the last five years. That's particularly true in rushing yards, long regarded as Tennessee's forte. For six straight seasons between 1989 and 1994, UT surpassed the 2,300-yard rushing mark, averaging 2,498 per season. Those numbers dipped during 1995, 1996 and 1997 as Peyton Manning's passing was prominently featured. In 1998, the Vols compiled 2,536 on the ground en route to a 13-0 mark and the national title. Tennessee rushed for 2,104 yards in 1999, but haven't reached the 2,000-yard barrier since. The Vols, who are currently on pace to finish below that mark again, rushed for more yards in the first three games than they have in the last five games and six overtimes combined. That's not good news with Miami on tap.

Conversely, Tennessee is 62-3 over it's last 65 games when it reaches the 200-yard rushing mark. That number dovetails into the Vols 69-4 record in November since 1985, as Tennessee is most successful when it runs the football and is able to wear down opponents late in the season, thriving in weather and field conditions that often mitigate against the pass.

Some have suggested in light of Tennessee's lack of success on the ground this season, the Vols should spread the field, pass the football and make more use of the no-huddle offense. Certainly there's nothing wrong with changing the pace while keeping opponents guessing, but Tennessee's offense is designed to run first, pass off of play action and maintain balance. You can't turn it into a west coast offense at this point anymore than you can turn a diesel rig into a drag racer.

Instead of redesigning the offense, Tennessee needs to figure out what has happened since the Florida game that has allowed every opponent to have the upper hand in running the football. Undoubtedly, the inability to control the football has hurt UT's rush defense which has had to stay on the field an average of 10 minutes more each game than their opponent. Clearly, Tennessee can't control the ball because it can't run the ball. But why were the Vols able to run the ball in the first three games but not since?

One theory is that opponents have learned to take away the run between the tackles, banking on the Vols not having a tailback capable of consistently hurting them on the perimeter. The scheme has been aided by Tennessee's lack of an effective counter at tight end where a receiving threat would have easy access to areas vacated by linebackers, and could force strong safeties to be more conscious of covering the middle, as opposed to creeping up in run support.

Another contributing factor is press coverage, which leaves no cushion for short passes to the edge where receivers could go one on one and create big plays. Since Casey Clausen isn't a running threat, defenses can simply elect to pressure him up the middle knowing that his effectiveness is reduced when he's forced to move from the pocket. Tennessee could also try to get the backs more involved in the passing game where they could turn short passes into long gains on the outside, but no back other than Troy Fleming has been a consistent pass-catching threat and, being a fullback, he's not as dangerous in the open field as UT's other options.

In short: defenses are selling out to the run inside in the belief the Vols have few viable options to get outside or behind linebackers in the middle. Without a tight end, or a fully developed wide receiver who can consistently beat press coverage, Tennessee's best chance of overcoming this tactic is with a back who can hurt defenses either inside or outside.

Though he's far from a proven commodity, Gerald Riggs is the candidate most likely to meet that demand for a dual threat. And much as Jamal Lewis, who didn't become a starter until the fifth game of his freshman season in 1997, Riggs represents the Vols best chance of getting its running game and title hopes back on track. He might miss the occasional block or blow a few assignments, but so have several senior starters at Tennessee this season.

One thing for sure, the Vols can't continue to do things the same way from the same formations with the same players and expect different results. If it didn't work against Duke in Knoxville, it won't work against Miami in Florida, just as it it may not work against Kentucky in Lexington.

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