Vols win 'dragon' battle

For a football team, giving up turnovers is about as dangerous as giving food to a fire-breathing dragon. That's why Tennessee's coaching staff recently placed a picture of a dragon in the Vol locker room with the inscription, ''Don't Feed The Dragon.''

The ploy may sound a little corny for college-age football players but, from all appearances, it's working.

''We've had a lot of fun with that,'' head coach Phillip Fullmer said during his Sunday teleconference.

The Vols have had a lot of success with it, too.

As Fulmer noted: ''We've gottem eight turnovers and given up none since we put that up.''

Counting last Saturday's 59-21 blowout of Mississippi State, Tennessee has played three turnover-free games in a row -- the first time that has happened since 1957. Clearly, this has been a key element of the Vols' recent turnaround. As Fulmer noted, it's much easier to prevail ''if you don't give it up on your end of the field and make it easy for people.''

Tennessee's coaches routinely discuss ball security but the emphasis has been a little greater since the Vols surrendered a goalline fumble on the final play of the first half against Georgia that the Bulldogs returned for a touchdown and a 14-point swing that turned the game around.

''There's never been a play that's changed a game like that one right before half against Georgia,'' Fulmer said. ''That made people more aware of it (damage caused by a turnover). There's been a special emphasis by coaches and players since then.''

Tennessee also has been emphasizing fast starts. Against Mississippi State, the Vols finally got off to one. They scored 14 first-quarter points against MSU, nearly matching their total (21) for the first nine games combined.

''It was good to finally get on top early, make somebody have to catch up,'' Fulmer said. ''Not counting our last drive of the game -- when we had some people who don't normally play in there -- we had 12 drives and scored on nine of them.''

Indeed. The Vols converted these 12 possessions into eight touchdowns and a field goal.

This will surprise those who are critical of UT's offense, but the Vols have been outstanding in the Orange Area (20-yard line on in) all year. The problem has been Tennessee's inability to GET INTO the Orange Area. The Vols have scored on their last seven forays into the Orange Area and 19 of the past 21. Their success rate on the season is 86 percent.

Fulmer is understandably thrilled by this figure.

''I think that goes back to Casey,'' he said, referring to senior quarterback Casey Clausen. ''We work on that (Orange Area offense) every Monday, and we make coming out (from UT's goalline) and going in (to the rival's end zone) a big priority.''

Clausen completed 20 of 33 passes for 330 yards vs. MSU and backup QB C.J. Leak completed 1 of 2 for another 16 yards. Tennessee had almost no rushing yards in the first half but finally got the ground game going late in the game.

''Mississippi State made a concerted effort to make sure we didn't run,'' Fulmer explained. ''When we spread it out, we really had a chance to make things happen throwing the ball.''

After reviewing the Mississippi State game film, UT's head man singled out Clausen, plus wideouts Mark Jones, Chris Hannon, Jason Swain and Derrick Tinsley for praise, then added that reserve tailback Gerald Riggs Jr. ''made a couple of nice runs.''

On the injury front, Fulmer said offensive tackle Sean Young is expected back for this weekend's game with Vanderbilt after missing the MSU game with a sprained ankle. The coach added that Young's fill-in, freshman Arron Sears was ''playing really well'' before hurting an ankle and having to sit out the rest of the game.

First-team tailback Cedric Houston, who missed the second half of the MSU game, ''will be fine'' for this weekend's game, Fulmer said. And safety Rashad Baker, who played a lot in the first half but none in the second half, was held out ''to save him a little bit for this week's game.''


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