A few inches off

Baseball is known as "a game of inches," but Tennessee football might share that title this season. Sophomore quarterback Erik Ainge has been amazed by the number of big-play opportunities missed because a pass slipped off the receiver's fingers or was gathered in with one toe out of bounds.

You get the idea that if their receivers had longer fingers and shorter toes, the Vols might be 7-1 instead of 3-5.

"There's not a whole lot you can say," Ainge said Tuesday at the Neyland-Thompson football complex. "Maybe it's just been a season of inches, and we've been two inches deep on everything."

Ainge has been a few inches too long on a bunch of deep throws this year. Perhaps he needs to put a little more air under the ball and let his receivers go get it, instead of trying to make perfect throws with virtually no margin for error. The thought has crossed his mind.

"Maybe instead of trying to hit ‘em in full stride, you bring it back a couple of feet, so they can go up and make a play," he said. "Like Notre Dame's guys did."

Regardless, Tennessee's inability to hit the big pass play this fall is as confounding as it is frustrating. Ainge said his timing with Vol receivers was "really good" heading into the season. It didn't stay that way, however, and he thinks there are two reasons for that: One, he and Rick Clausen began splitting time, causing each man's timing to suffer.

"Anytime you've got two guys working with one set of receivers … it's going to throw it off a little bit," Ainge said. "They (receivers) are going to have one set of timing with Rick and one set with me. That's tough. It's a different game when Rick plays and when I play. They (receivers) need to process that. As a quarterback and receiver group, I don't think we've handled that very well."

Another factor that has hindered Tennessee's vertical passing game is the fact several receivers have missed time with injuries. The most notable was C.J. Fayton. UT's leading pass-catcher through four games, he suffered a sprained ankle that limited him to two catches for minus-7 yards in Games 5, 6 and 7. He finally returned to health – and form – last week vs. Notre Dame, catching two balls for 44 yards.

"That hurt," Ainge conceded. "It's tough to go out on Saturday and make a bunch of stuff happen when you don't practice during the week. That puts everybody in a tough position."

Whatever the reasons, Tennessee's passing game has not provided the big-play dimension that was expected of it in preseason. Without that home-run threat, moving the ball becomes a whole lot more challenging.

As Ainge put it: "When you're not hitting deep, they (defenders) are going to make it that much tougher to hit the intermediate and short stuff."

The only way to stop opponents from crowding the line of scrimmage is to hit the deep ball. SEVERAL deep balls, to be precise.

"Anytime you take your shots down the field and don't connect, they're going to keep doing it until you connect," Ainge said. "Even if you hit one, they're going to keep doing it. Even if you hit two, they might back off a little bit. You've got to hit more than one for them to start backing off."

Hitting a few deep passes this Saturday against Memphis would force the Tigers' safeties to back up a bit. That would open up more space for Vol receivers to maneuver and for Vol tailbacks to run. How much difference would that make?

"That," Ainge said, "would make ALL the difference."

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