Offensive Slump Continues

Play calling, like cat calling, is overrated as a means of energizing an impotent offense. For all the fan-speak about throwing the bomb and trying trick plays, it's still basic fundamental execution that determines a team's ability to produce points.

That point was underscored in Tennessee's latest loss, as Randy Sanders was safely tucked away in the upper reaches of Notre Dame Stadium and out of the line of fire. Yet, UT's offense continues to be what it is because when all is said and done, the best any coach can do is play to his team's strengths and to the opponent's weaknesses.

Here's the top to bottom offensive ratings for the Tennessee-Notre Dame 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. Special teams are included among defensive ratings but they aren't factored into the defense's total score.

RUNNING BACK (90) Arian Foster has been the most pleasant surprise of the season for Tennessee, and Randy Sanders critics have to be thankful the much maligned former Vol OC recognized his talent while recruiting QB prospect Richard Kovalcheck in San Diego two years ago.

The redshirt freshman has shown toughness, stamina, sharp instincts and outstanding vision in his two starts at tailback. He equaled his output against South Carolina with 125 net yards and a touchdown in 28 carries against Notre Dame, despite still being questionable at midweek due to a leg injury. The injury probably slowed Foster a step, nevertheless he managed to reel off a season best 43-yard run for the Vols while averaging 4.5 yards per carry.

He's already accomplished more as a freshman than either Cedric Houston or Gerald Riggs did, and he's the most creative tailback UT has had since Travis Stephens in 2001. Additionally, he demonstrated better ball security particularly around the goal line. Walk-on David Yancey is the only healthy back behind Foster which puts a tremendous load on the freshman.

Fullback Corey Anderson provided adequate blocking, but he continues to struggle as a receiver out of the backfield which limits UT's options on third down, especially when five or fewer yards are needed to advance the sticks.

OFFENSIVE LINE (74) David Ligon drew his first starting assignment and brought some stability to the center of UT's O-line. He did an excellent job snapping to the shotgun and made several nice protection pickups. The offensive line created some running room up front and generally gave Ainge time to make plays. Notre Dame's three sacks were due to indecision by Ainge or good coverage by the Fighting Irish. The Vols came away with points on all four excursions into the red zone and averaged a respectable 4.2 yards per play. However, Notre Dame's 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage is simply too many. While not the dominating unit many envisioned before the season, the O-line is giving UT's skill players chances to make plays. Only a few have taken advantage of the opportunities. Additionally, UT's offensive line is playing hurt at several positions.

RECEIVERS (62) The inability to gain yards after the reception, or make the tough catch continues to be central to UT's offensive failings. Has any Vol wideout broken a tackle this season? It doesn't seem like it, and UT's longest pass play against Notre Dame, 23 yards, underscores that problem. Conversely, the Irish had receptions of 73, 43 and 35 yards against UT.

Obviously, the talent here isn't as good as most estimated, but if UT's staff failed to evaluate it correctly so did virtually every other gridiron giant in the country because they were all hot high school commodities in 2003. Nagging injuries have limited the effectiveness of UT's wideouts, but many of the same problems existed when they were healthy. Robert Meachem had a couple of throws hit his finger tips, leading some to suggest he should have laid out for the passes, but the angle of decent didn't lend itself to leaving his feet. It's much like running through the first base bag in baseball as opposed to sliding into it or diving for it. His best option would have been to accelerate through the catch, but he appears to lack that essential burst, which may be a byproduct of his injured ankle. He also appears unable to get elevation while on the run, another sign his ankle isn't stable.

Jayson Swain has size and is exceptionally strong, but that hasn't translated to big plays so far this season. Bret Smith is the closest thing UT has to a money receiver at this point. He had two catches for 21 yards, a touchdown and two-point conversion in South Bend. C.J. Fayton (two catches for 44 yards) is back from injury but not all the way back. In the past, he has demonstrated a capacity to turn short passes into big plays and the Vols desperately need a return to form the next three weeks.

Senior Chris Hannon (two catches for 14 yards) is a major disappointment, and if Tennessee is playing for the future at quarterback it should do the same at wide receiver. That makes Chris Hannon dispensable.

QUARTERBACK (58) The most significant insight gleaned from this category is that quarterback was singular. Among Coach Phillip Fulmer's first acts as acting OC was naming Ainge as both starter and finisher for the Vols. That relegated Rick Clausen to hand-signal and cheerleader duty. Consequently, Ainge will be evaluated alone for the first time in 2005.

Let's begin with the positives and there were some. On balance, Ainge exhibited improvement, especially with his touch on passes. That's something we haven't seen since his freshman season, and it could be an indication he is gaining leverage on the sophomore jinx. Generally, Ainge threw the ball well when he had time and he demonstrated good arm strength.

However, when pressured he was indecisive and he was far from fearless in the pocket. He still tends to visually lock in on receivers and telegraph passes. Some of that can be chalked up to the vagaries of youth, but approaching the halfway point of his college career with nine starts under his belt and 14 games of playing experience the "green signal caller" label hardly fits.

What can fairly be stated is that Ainge hit his open receivers and narrowly missed connecting on a few deep throws. He got help from the running game, but not a lot of support from his receivers, who rarely break tackles or make the difficult catches. (More on that in the Receivers category.)

The bottom line on any quarterback is production and that's where Ainge comes up decidedly short. He completed 13-of-32 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown against a less than stellar Notre Dame secondary. However, he threw two interceptions that were returned for 74 yards and a touchdown. He ran the ball 11 times for minus-16 yards, which gives him a net of 97 yards in 43 plays. And that's not counting the two intentional grounding penalties he picked up. Both of those violations could have been averted by simply getting rid of the ball sooner. Unfortunately, he hesitated and paid the price.

Whether Clausen could have made a difference is a matter of speculation. He's certainly endured his share of hardships since the outstanding performance he enjoyed against LSU. Besides, UT is trying to get a jump on 2006 when the quarterback position will be up for grabs again. If Ainge is able to lead Tennessee to three wins to close the campaign he could lay early claim on the QB job and give the Vols something positive to build upon. The extra practices could prove invaluable to a team that has plenty of problems to resolve. And maintaining the streak of bowl games as well as winning seasons is at the heart of program pride. However, if Ainge has one of his mental meltdowns in the heat of battle, you have to wonder if Fulmer will turn to Clausen to try to salvage a game and winning season?

This critique compares Ainge to himself from earlier in the season which is a pretty steep curve. At this point, he simply doesn't compare to former Vol QBs Andy Kelly, Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning or Casey Clausen when they were sophomores. (He doesn't compare to Tee Martin either although the Mobile, Ala., saw only mop up duty as a sophomore behind Manning.) That's significant because Ainge is next in the line of signal caller succession. That means UT either hasn't done it's job of recruiting QB talent, or has failed to develop it.

OVERALL (76) Too many turnovers (2) and two few big plays (1) make for an unhealthy bottom line. However, kudos go out for an 18-point rally that knotted the score going into the decisive fourth quarter, and for an inspired performance by Arian Foster. David Ligon was as upgrade at center and Chris Brown has been a consistent contributor at tight end. Note to Eric Ainge: football is a contact sport.

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