Grade UT's Offense F for Futile

To say Tennessee's offense is struggling is to say climbing Mount Everest is a nice cardiovascular workout. In fact, watching the Vols attempt to move the ball is akin to observing a climber attempting to scale the planet's pinnacle, taking laborious step after laborious step, each followed by a five-minute respite spent bent at the waist, heaving on an oxygen mask.

It's certainly far from the thunder and lightning offense most Big Orange fans envisioned this season — an attack featuring the power running of Gerald Riggs and a potent vertical passing game.

Officially the Vols are the least productive offense in the SEC and one of the lowest rated in the nation. They are averaging only 12 points per game and have only scored seven points in the last six quarters of play. UT hasn't scored a single point in the second half of either game which suggests they are not executing or adjusting well. Three of the last four times they have entered the red zone, they have failed to come away with any points. They are only a combined 17 of 32 in third down conversions and 0 of 3 on fourth down attempts.

As is normally the case with any unit struggling this much there are no simple answers to the mounting problems. The offensive line play is inconsistent from the most basic run blocking to the more complex pass protection packages. The receivers do not get open often and when they do they don't catch the ball consistently. Their down field blocking has been spotty at best and is reflected in the fact UT has yet to break a run for more than 16 yards this season. The quarterback play has received the lion's share of blame and the failures there are obvious since everybody watches the QB.

Here's the top to bottom offensive ratings for the Tennessee-Florida 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 and won't be good enough to defeat a quality opponent. Any grade below 60 is considered failing.

RUNNING BACKS (81) Riggs hasn't been perfect (he misses holes on occasion) but he's played well enough for the Vols to win if the other components of the offense were performing up to even minimal standards. In two games, Riggs has gained 197 yards on 40 carries for an average of just under 5.0 yards per attempt. However there is a dramatic difference in what he's done in the first half compared to what he's gained in the second. Riggs has gained 140 of his 197 yards in the first half so far this season and 57 in the second half. That could be a sign of fatigue or it's a sign UT is going away from the run in response to defenses stacking the box with eight and nine defenders. Arian Foster has shown flashes of talent in limited play, but games have been too tight for true freshmen Montario Hardesty and LaMarcus Coker to get PT. One or two of these three backups should emerge as a rising star by midseason which will be a major boost to ground game. It's still early and he has time to turn things around but fullback Cory Anderson hasn't been as effective as either a lead blocker or receiver as he was in 2004. That could open the way for David Holbert to get more reps. The biggest surprise to this point is that UT hasn't scored a single TD on the ground.

RECEIVERS (60) This grade is elevated by the play of wideout Bret Smith and H-back Chris Brown who both made key catches for the Vols against Florida. Smith ran a nice crossing route to score UT's only touchdown and nearly came up with a terrific diving catch near the goal line before the play was reviewed and ruled incomplete. Robert Meachem was slowed by an ankle injury but did turn in the Vols' longest play of the game on a 19-yard reception. Freshman Josh Briscoe ran a precise in route for a 17-yard catch on UT's scoring drive. Smith finished with four catches for 27 yards and Meachem had two for 29, but no other Vol wideout had more than one catch or as many as 20 yards. Given their range of experience and all-American status (Smith, Meachem and Jayson Swain) coming out of high school in 2003 this unit appears to be playing below its potential.

QUARTERBACKS (57) As a rule quarterbacks get too much credit when things go well and too much blame when things don't. Undoubtedly, the play of UT's signal callers isn't what it could or should be, but there are mitigating factors. Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen felt the heat throughout the game and aside from the scoring drive had little to show for their efforts. Ainge has a bad habit of just drifitng toward the sideline when flushed out of the pocket and is in no position to make a throw. He needs a more assertive escape route that puts pressure on the defense to cover the pass or run. He also continues to put the ball up for grabs. There was a lot of miscommunication between QBs and receivers and the Vols had to use all six of their allotted time-outs to avoid delay of game penalties. It appeared UT's signal callers were baited into some audibles when running the original play would have been the wiser choice. Give credit to Florida's outstanding DBs for blanket man coverage that left sparse space for passes to be completed. As bad as their play seemed, it should improve exponentially with better play from UT's O-line and receivers.

OFFENSIVE LINE (51) For a unit that starts three seniors, two juniors and averages nearly 330 pounds per lineman, the results to this point are under whelming. The failure to establish a consistent rushing attack or provide even adequate protection is the most disappointing aspect of the offense. It's also a drastic departure from the level of play Tennessee finished with in 2004 in games against Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Auburn and Texas A&M in which the Vols scored 141 combined points for an average of 35.3 points per game. Against Florida, UT gained 213 net yards and scored seven points. The Gators defense had seven stops behind the line of scrimmage, including two sacks, but many more hurries. Add an errant snap that resulted in a 15-yard loss in the fourth quarter and it's clear the O-line bears a lot of responsibility for this defeat. Tennessee's offensive line might have been expected to take over the game when Florida's formidable tackle Ray McDonald left with a knee injury but it didn't.

OVERALL (58) How much of this was Florida's defense is a question that can't be answered without more data which will come with more games. As it stands, UT's offense seemed stale and unimaginative. No counters or misdirection of any sort and very little play-action. The ground game was smothered at the point of attack by superior numbers in the second half. Neither could the Vols beat press coverage for any big plays although the Gators dared them throughout the contest. Florida appeared to have a good read on what Tennessee would do based on formation and personnel as well as down and distance. Ironically, it wasn't clear on the plays called that UT knew what it wanted to do offensively. Timing was poor and execution was generally lacking.


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