Hardesty's hard to overlook

When one guy goes down, another guy steps up. That's the way it works on good football teams, and that's the way it worked for Tennessee Saturday at Neyland Stadium. When star tailback Arian Foster went down with a second-quarter ankle injury, his understudy filled the void admirably.

On the first series after Foster's injury, Montario Hardesty rushed for gains of 7, 9, 10 and 3 yards as the Vols marched 75 yards to take a 17-10 lead just before halftime. Hardesty plowed over from three yards out to cap Tennessee's first possession of the third quarter, boosting the lead to 24-10. He contributed a pair of eight-yard runs on the next drive as Tennessee went up 31-17.

The 6-0, 205-pound redshirt freshman from New Bern, N.C., finished with 72 yards on 19 carries, averaging 3.8 yards per attempt. Head coach Phillip Fulmer says Hardesty did more than just run effectively, though.

"Montario ran hard, protected (the passer) well, did a nice job on a couple of routes," the head man said. "Montario is doing real well. He had some good runs but just couldn't break one."

If you discount Hardesty's carries, the rest of the Vols ran 13 times for 7 net yards. As a team Tennessee had just 79 rushing yards on 32 attempts. The visiting Falcons were determined to shut down Tennessee's ground game, and they generally succeeded. The cost was high, though: They allowed Erik Ainge to pile up 333 passing yards.

"Watching the tape, they really committed to stopping the run and weren't able to hold up in the coverages they ran with it," Fulmer said. "I would like for us to have made a few more plays but it was a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul deal by Air Force."

Foster's ankle injury is not considered serious, so he should be close to full speed when the Vols host Florida in Game 3 this Saturday night. Hardesty's quality play vs. Air Force should earn him significant playing time against the Gators, however.

"We'll get Arian back in a couple of days quite likely," Fulmer said, "and we've got to get LaMarcus Coker in the game, as well. He had a nice first ball game (vs. California)."

Despite some difficulties in the running game, Tennessee's offense was coolly efficient against Air Force. The Vols scored a field goal and four touchdowns in seven possessions, with the last one consisting of two quarterback keepers designed to run out the clock.

"Offensively, we played well," Fulmer said. "We only had six possessions that counted and scored on five of the six."

Incredibly, Tennessee did not punt all game. That hasn't happened since Nov. 7, 1998, when the Vols beat Alabama Birmingham 37-13. Tennessee saw fumbles end three of its possessions that day, whereas, the Vols lost just one turnover (an interception) Saturday night vs. Air Force.

After averaging a mere 18.6 points per game in 2005, Tennessee is averaging 33.0 in 2006. That's essentially a two-touchdown per game improvement. Why the change?

"I think we're playing much more as a team offensively," Fulmer said. "We're practicing at a much better tempo and we're much more physical. We're really staying within the framework of what we can do as an offensive football team, not getting outside that box.

"We did a good job having some balance – the first game especially – of running and throwing the ball. We're just playing much more efficiently right now."

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