Grading UT's offensive performance against LSU is difficult because the differences in the first and second halves were so drastic. Any praise of the Vols play has to be tempered by recognition of their shortcomings and put into perspective with other data we have to this point of the season.
With that qualifier out of the way, here's the top to bottom offensive ratings for the Tennessee-LSU 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. We have broken down the units this week to offense and defense. Special teams are also included in the defensive grades.
QUARTERBACKS (82) The quarterbacks get our highest mark simply because without Rick Clausen's talents as a field general this game would have been over at the half. No, he doesn't have a rocket launcher arm, but he'll absolutely dink a defense to death with his quick release and short accurate throws. He picks up blitzes like it's second nature and has a real knack for finding the open receiver and getting them the ball tin position to make plays. His ball distribution keeps everybody alert and involved while it forces defenses to account for every eligible receiver. Like an orchestra conductor, he gave the offense much needed rhythm and kept everybody on the same page. That allowed the Vols to control the ball and wear down LSU's defense, which got frustrated and fatigued trying to mount a pass rush against a QB who got the ball off before they could get off the line. It wasn't a coincidence UT's pass protection improve dramatically with Clausen in the game. The end result was a rejuvenated ground game that became vital in the red zone. Even Clausen's lone interception was actually a well thrown pass that Robert Meachem couldn't reach after being held by the DB. On his own Clausen would receive a grade of 98 for coming in under the most daunting of circumstances and playing with remarkable poise. Obviously, Eric Ainge didn't respond as well to the pressure. Sometimes he held the ball too long while other times he put it up for grabs. In fairness, Ainge had several early passes dropped by receivers which probably hurt his confidence. However that's part of the game just as outstanding catches of bad passes are a part of the game. Ainge is still a talented signal caller, who simply needs the confidence and resiliency that comes with maturity.
OFFENSIVE LINE (80) This makeshift unit featured two players — Anthony Parker and Eric Young — making their first ever college starts. Additionally, Albert Toeaina played every snap in the game while Aaron Sears played all but three snaps. Cody Douglas was slowed by an injury while Rob Smith changed positions more than a yoga instructor. Still the O-line managed to get the better of what is arguably the best front seven in the SEC. There were blown assignments and missed blocks, but as the game wore on Tennessee slowly gained control of the line of scrimmage. Their display of power football inside the 10 in the second half and overtime was the first of its kind at UT this season and offered hope of a productive offense for the remainder of the 2005 campaign. Sears shows all-American potential and Smith is one tough son of a gun.
RUNNING BACKS (79) A big game by Gerald Riggs who exhibited his diversity, stamina, power and toughness. Riggs ran for 89 net yards in 24 carries and caught three passes for 20 more yards. He had a season-high 22-yard run, scored two touchdowns including the game winner in overtime. The only blemish on his performance was a fumble that cost the Vols a possession. True freshman Montario Hardesty saw his first action, gaining four yards in two carries and proved surprisingly adept as a blocker. Unfortunately, fullback Cory Anderson seems to have regressed as both a blocker and receiver. He let a sure TD pass thrown by Clausen slip off his hands and missed a couple of blitzes that resulted in sacks. He's not breaking tackles when he does catch the ball (two receptions for 9 yards vs. LSU) and has leveled off as a lead blocker. Anderson needs to regain his focus for UT to be a consistent offense. Maybe a little push from David Holbert would help Anderson improve his play.
RECEIVERS (70) Too many drops and not enough big plays from a unit that continues to woefully under perform. Seniors C.J. Fayton (eight catches for 61 yards) and Chris Hannon (six catches for 55 yards) provided some consistency and stability, but the Vols need for Meachem, Bret Smith and Jayson Swain to step up their play. The lack of a deep threat is allowing defenses to crowd the line of scrimmage against the run, while the lack of a go-to receiver is allowing opponents to play man coverage. If only one of UT's wideouts was dangerous enough to draw double coverage, it would create more opportunities for the other receivers as well as the running game.
OVERALL (77) Getting blanked in the first half and turning the ball over four times in the game makes it difficult to grade the offense any higher, despite its inspiring and productive effort in the second half. If the offense can develop consistency Tennessee's defense will become one of the most dominating in the country.