Playing the "pound the rock" style of offense head coach Phillip Fulmer prefers, Tennessee ran the ball 48 times for 172 yards. Despite a sore ankle, Rick Clausen played every snap at quarterback, completing 18 of 35 passes for another 206 yards.
Statistically, Tennessee appeared dominant. The Vols outgained Ole Miss 378 yards to 250 and kept the ball 36 minutes to the Rebels' 24. The problem was, Tennessee couldn't get the ball in the end zone once it got in scoring position. Eight trips inside the Rebel 35-yard line produced just two TDs. Four times Tennessee settled for field goal tries – two made, two missed – and the other two times it turned the ball over on downs.
"Between the 20-yard lines I thought we moved the ball really well," Clausen said. "But once we got down to the Red Zone we didn't punch it in. We need to start doing that. We kicked four field goals (including the misses), and we can't do that. You've got to put the ball in the end zone and get seven points down there."
Gerald Riggs was a bright spot, rushing 26 times for 125 yards and a touchdown. Arian Foster added 11 carries for 36 yards. He also scored a touchdown. Still, Tennessee's longest run was a mere 13-yarder. The longest run of the season covered just 19 yards. Where are the big plays in the ground game?
"That's college football," Riggs said. "It's not every game that you're going to get 40- or 50-yard plays. You'd like to but the reality of it is, you're not. Sooner or later, those things will start popping for us. The big thing we've got to do is keep plugging."
The Vols went 56 yards in just six plays on their opening possession Saturday, Riggs getting the touchdown by bouncing outside for a two-yard scoring run. When Vol cornerback Jonathan Wade picked off a Michael Spurlock pass and raced 19 yards on Ole Miss' third offensive snap, the Vols led 14-0 and appeared off to the races.
But this game would prove disturbingly similar to the opener against UAB, when Tennessee scored 10 points in the game's first six minutes and only seven more thereafter. Saturday, after scoring 14 points in the first six minutes, the Vols wouldn't crack the end zone again until 2:02 remained in the game.
James Wilhoit field goals of 25 and 23 yards gave Tennessee a somewhat shaky 20-10 lead with four minutes to play. Fortunately, the Vol defense came to the rescue as Parys Haralson forced a Spurlock fumble and Antwan Stewart recovered at the Rebel 13-yard line. Five Foster runs produced the clinching score.
The erratic performance can be traced in part to the fact Tennessee was playing its second game of the week. Fulmer suggested as much.
"Winning two Southeastern Conference games in six days … I don't know of anybody else that's done that," the Vol coach said. "Our kids and staff showed an incredible amount of courage and toughness and fight, particularly as banged up as we are in some spots."
One of those spots is quarterback. Playing with a sprained ankle and two dislocated fingers, Clausen still managed to do a solid job.
"He got the heck knocked out of him a couple of times," Fulmer noted, "but Rick's a tough guy and a leader. He made some key third-down plays."
The head man was understandably thrilled with Tennessee's defense. Except for a 56-yard run by Mico McSwain on Ole Miss' final possession of the game, Vol defenders limited the Rebels to minus-six yards on their other 24 rushing attempts. The defense also recorded two crucial takaways – the interception Wade returned for a touchdown and the Stewart fumble recovery that set up another TD.
Fulmer wasn't quite as happy with his attack unit, noting "The short-yardage and goal line (offense) have to be better. Those are areas that'll definitely be focuses."
While he's focusing on the offense, maybe the coach can figure out a way to shake a running back loose for a big gain.
"It's coming," Fulmer said, grinning smugly. "Stick around and we'll get one."