UT's Wideouts Receive Top Marks

After Tennessee's second touchdown of the first quarter this one looked like it would be a blowout, but Ole Miss made defensive adjustments and the Vols offense went flat until an Erik Ainge pass in the flat was picked off in the fourth quarter and returned for a TD that gave the Rebels a 17-14 lead.

With the vocal home crowd smelling an upset victory and Mississippi's players feasting on adrenaline generated by 17 unanswered points, this didn't seem like the best of circumstances to revive an offense that had gone dormant for the better part of three quarters. It turned out to be the perfect time and the resulting 83-yard scoring march may come to be seen as the defining drive of UT's 2004 campaign.

Here's the top to bottom offensive ratings for the Tennessee-Ole Miss game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy. Grades of 70-79 are average marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but problematical. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. (We have broken down the units this week to offense and defense.)

RECEIVERS (90) This is the first game of the season UT's receivers earned top marks for the offense. This is due in large part to the breakout performance by Robert Meachem who had three catches for 83 yards, including the critical 39-yard catch on third down and seven with the Vols at their own 30 that set up Tennessee's go ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Meachem's catch came on a fade pattern near the sideline under heavy coverage. He was called out of bounds at the Rebels' 29 yard-line, although it wasn't clear from TV replays that he ever breached the boundary. Regardless, Tennessee would not be denied, scoring two plays later on a diving catch by clutch receiver Bret Smith who split Mississippi's safeties on a post route to haul in the pass. Veteran Tony Brown had three catches for 56 yards in the game and set up UT's first touchdown on a 26-yard reception. Chris Hannon kept Tennessee's second scoring drive alive with a 19-yard reception on a fake punt from Dustin Colquitt. Those four plays were critical to every UT touchdown. Derrick Tinsley, Jayson Swain and C.J. Fayton had two catches each for the Vols as seven wide receivers contributed to the passing game. The only negative was the failure of receivers to get open consistently against press coverage. Clearly, Tennessee's wideouts are a strength of the team and Meachem's performance is an indication of better things to come this season.

RUNNING BACKS (86) Another quality game by Gerald Riggs who finished with 118 yards rushing in 24 carries without any ball security issues. There weren't a lot of clean holes to run through for the most part as Ole Miss stacked the box with eight defenders. Still Riggs found space to maneuver and made positive yardage when he could have been tackled for losses. He also had a run of 21 yards for a first-quarter touchdown and another 24-yard carry. For the second consecutive week Cedric Houston did little in relief of Riggs, gaining just 10 yards in eight carries. One of Houston's runs was for five yards which meant the other seven carries netted five yards. Against Georgia Houston had 28 yards in 16 carries, giving the senior a two-game total of 38 yards in 24 carries. That's not the type of production UT figured to get from the back who came into the season with the school career rushing mark within his grasp. It also stands in stark contrast to what Riggs (220 yards in 50 carries) has produced running behind the same line and against the same defenses. Houston did catch a couple of passes for 14 yards, including a five-yard reception that gave the Vols a key first down on their game-winning drive, but he has to pick up the pace as a runner to remain a viable option. Jabari Davis, who score a one-yard TD in his only carry, has become a short-yardage specialist but has only 29 yards in 12 carries on the season. Cory Anderson had another good night blocking for the most part but didn't catch any passes and picked up a holding penalty in the fourth quarter.

OFFENSIVE LINE (85) Outside of the game's opening drive and UT's scoring drive in the fourth quarter, the offense largely sputtered. Those two drives produced 161 yards in 17 plays for 9.3 yards per play. Tennessee's other 61 plays gained 212 yards for 3.3 yards per play. It's not difficult to see why UT lost the time of possession of battle — 29:25 to 30:35. The Vols had better than a 10-minute advantage in TOP against Georgia which was essential to controlling the pace of the game and keeping UT's defense fresh. Ole Miss only recorded one sack for a three-yard loss but Ainge was under pressure for much of the game which is reflected by his completion percentage of under 50 percent (14 of 30). In fairness, the Vols front five is banged up with starter Cody Douglas out of action. Michael Munoz, Albert Toeaina and Arron Sears are slowed by injuries and some shuffling has been required over the last two games to fill the gaps. Tennessee needs some of its young linemen to step up and provide relief down the stretch. The Vols have played five straight games without a bye and that total will eventually reach eight before an off week. The durability and depth of the offensive line will be severely tested. The ability of UT's O-line to take on that challenge will determine how far the Vols can go this year.

QUARTERBACKS (82) It's hard to be too critical of a true freshman rallying his team to an SEC victory on the road in the fourth quarter, but Erik Ainge struggled throughout the second and third quarters and at one point had only completed 9-of-23 passes against the SEC's 11th ranked defense. At least two of those incompletions should have been interceptions and the one interception he did throw resulted in Ole Miss' first lead of the game. Ainge failed to pick up the defensive back lying in wait on a flanker screen and Bryan Brown flashed in front of intended target Chris Hannon for a 34-yard INT return. Ainge responded to the misfortune with his finest hour, including a perfect pass to Meachem on the fade and an excellent pick up of Smith coming free down the middle on a post route in which he appeared to be the third option. Ainge has already proven himself to the point that it's virtually impossible to judge him against the standards of a true freshmen signal caller, so when he plays like a rookie it's surprising. He's a special talent who's quickly becoming a seasoned QB. Brent Schaeffer played two series in the third quarter but failed to pick up a first down when the Vols needed a lift. He completed 1-of-2 throws for eight yards but is still holding the football on three-step drops instead of getting rid of it.

OVERALL (86) This was a winning but uneven effort that might have been the result of the emotional victory over Georgia last week. The Vols will need better against Alabama which has an outstanding defense and wants this game more than any of the schedule. Tennessee may have gone into a shell after jumping out to the early lead when it could have done more to put the Rebels away. Champions knock out an opponent on the ropes.

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