Kicking Game, Turnovers Are Keys for UT

General Robert R. Neyland's sixth football maxim states: "Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made."

The game has changed in so many ways since Neyland first set down his seven famous maxims. The single wing is an ancient offensive relic, the two-platoon player is now a novelty and the days of offering 45 scholarships in a single season seems farcical.

But all seven of Neyland's maxims remain as relevant today as they were 70 years ago. Their sage insight is carved into the very bedrock that is Tennessee's football foundation. They are spoken in unison by players in the locker room and fans in the stands before each Tennessee home game. They are recited like a solemn oath on consecrated ground in one of college football's most celebrated cathedrals. This turf was broken during the first of the General's five-decade reign that started in the 1920's with an edict to vanquish Vanderbilt and ended in the 60's with Neyland serving as athletic director of the gridiron giant he had fashioned.

We revisit No. 6 on the General's list today because Tennessee aspires to return to the lofty status it achieved in the mid and late 90's. If the Vols are to return to that status, they will have to prevail in close contests, and cliffhangers have become the rule in an era in which equity is legislated.

Gone are the days when college football was dominated by superior talent alone. Today the difference between top teams is usually marginal and the difference in victory and defeat is often decided by the superior kicking game.

There are vivid reminders of this eternal truth in both Tennessee's 1998 national championship season and in the 2001 campaign in which the Vols finished one win short of another national championship shot.

Tennessee's 2001 home loss to Georgia was directly attributable to the kicking game as any contest in recent memory. The Bulldogs won 26-24 and 14 of their points were scored by the kicking team. Georgia averaged 42.4 yards on seven punts, keeping the Vols in unfavorable field position the entire game while allowing only 22 yards on two returns. Tennessee averaged 33.4 yards on eight punts and allowed 89 yards on three returns, including a 72-yard touchdown gallop by Damien Gray on a low line-drive punt. The Vols had only two yards on one kick return compared to the Dogs four kickoff returns for 90 yards. The last of those returns was the shortest and the also the most critical, as tight end Randy McMichael — now with the Miami Dolphins and recently arrested for domestic abuse — fielded a short kick that failed to clear the front line and brought it back seven yards to put Georgia in business at their own 41. The Bulldogs took just 37 seconds to drive 59 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

Almost overlooked in the aftermath of UT's astonishing special teams meltdown was Georgia's two-to-one edge in field goals. Billy Bennett connected on both of his attempts while the Vols normally reliable Alex Walls was one-of-two, misfiring on a 32-yarder in the second quarter.

All totaled UGA held a 179-to-24 advantage in return yardage and a 14-6 cushion in points scored via the kicking game. In a sport most often decided in the trenches, that was enough to overcome UT's 197-to-68 yardage edge on the ground, and a nearly two-to-one advantage in time of possession (39:01 to 20:59). Nor did it matter that UT converted 9-of-17 third-down opportunities while Georgia made just 1-of-11 of its third-down attempts as well as being stopped once on fourth down.

In that same season, Tennessee turned the tables in the special teams department against Kentucky and thus avoided a major upset. Despite being out rushed 137 to 82 and out passed 406 to 285 — a 543 to 367 total yardage deficit — the Vols pulled out a 38-35 victory in Lexington. To further illustrate the importance of the kicking game note that the Wildcats held the ball 37:01 to the Vols 22:59, converted 9-of-17 third-down attempts to Tennessee's 2-of-11 success rate. Kentucky made one-of-two fourth down gambles while the Vols failed on it's only fourth-down try.

So how did the Vols do it? Simply put: Leonard Scott had his biggest kick return day of the season, Colquitt had his best punting day of the season and Walls nailed the biggest pressure kick of his career. Scott returned four kicks for 144 yards (a 36-yard average), including a 49-yard return. Colquitt punted six times for 281 yards, an outstanding 46.8-yard average. Walls split the uprights from 44 yards out with 2:49 remaining and the Vols held on for the win. It was the only field goal made in that contest and it provided the margin of victory.

Without that come-from-behind effort against the Wildcats, UT's victory over Florida would have been insignificant as far as the Vols national title aspirations, and the LSU rematch would have never taken place.

Similarly, the 1998 season would have never ended in a national championship for Tennessee if the kicking game hadn't provided victories in the first two contests of the season. Jeff Hall's last second 27-yard field goal allowed the Vols to get out of the Carrier Dome with a 34-33 win instead of a 33-31 setback. The next week Tennessee was able to overcome Florida in overtime when Jeff Hall drove home a 41-yard field goal in overtime while the Gators missed from 32 yards out.

Another point of interest from the five aforementioned games is in the turnover department. In the victories over Syracuse, Florida and Kentucky, Tennessee held the edge in respective turnovers 2-0, 5-1 and 2-1. In the SEC championship loss to LSU, the Tigers held a 2-0 edge in turnovers while the Georgia game was even in the miscue department at one apiece.

In the 13-0 1998 championship season, Tennessee held a 33-to-17 advantage over opponents in turnovers, an SEC leading average of 1.33 per contest. In 2001, the Vols only led in the turnover department 21-18, an average of .25 advantage per game, good for fifth in the conference. Ultimately, that disparity was the difference in 13-0 and the national title and 11-2 and the SEC East Division title.

That brings us to No. 1 on the General's seven maxims of football: "The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win."

In punter Dustin Colquitt and place kicker James Wilhoit, Tennessee has one of the top kicking tandems in the nation. If the Vols can get more out of its return game and maintain a consistent edge in the turnover department, Tennessee will prove tough to beat by any opponent on the schedule. That's why the first priority of UT's quarterback is to avoid mistakes while the running backs must hang onto the football before they can advance it.

If Tennessee's backfield isn't counterproductive and the kicking game is top notch, the Vols can win a lot of games in 2004 and maybe a championship.

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