O-line let UT down

You can slice and dice this one anyway you want, but the only explanation for Tennessee's loss to No. 7 Florida at Neyland Stadium on Saturday is this: The best team controlled the line of scrimmage, made the big plays at the right time and won the game.

Florida deserved a 21-20 victory over the 13th-ranked Vols.

In fact, you had to wonder how the score was so close, considering the way the Gators completely shut down the Vols' running attack and harassed quarterback Erik Ainge in the second half into a near safety and a critical intentional grounding.

If there was one stat that underscored Florida's biggest road win in Urban Meyer's two seasons, it was this: Minus-11 rushing yards for Tennessee. Running backs did much better: 19 carries for 16 yards, or a whopping .84 yards per carry.

While a couple of Tennessee coaches kept saying the offensive line was doing fine with run blocking, I kept seeing signs of concern. I didn't think the line got a real good push against Cal, despite rushing for 216 yards. Against Air Force, the Vols had 27 running plays for 98 yards, or 3.5 yards per carry.

If you have that much trouble running against Air Force, you know you'll have trouble running against arguably the best front four in the SEC.

Still, I didn't see this coming. I didn't see a completion domination of UT's offensive line. The Vols' longest run from scrimmage was 5 yards. It took three runs from the 1-yard line to score a touchdown to take a 17-7 lead with 8:40 left in the third quarter.

Asked if Florida simply outmuscled UT's blockers or if it was Florida's scheme, Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said: ``It was a little bit of both.''

Maybe so, but from my vantage point, Florida's defensive line took UT behind the wood shed for a butt whipping. When your top rusher has 14 yards on 17 carries, you're in trouble.

``It was frustrating,'' said left guard David Ligon, ``As frustrating as anything I've experienced.''

Perhaps Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer put it best: ``You'll have a hard time winning in this league if you don't run any better than that. Montario ran the ball well. We just didn't give him room to run.''

I'm not so sure Hardesty ran well, but it was hard to tell, considering how overmatched the offensive line was. This was a line that Fulmer and line coach Greg Adkins insisted were doing well in the run-block category.

The Florida debacle might have set a record for futility by a Tennessee team. Can you name the last time the Vols finished a game with minus rushing yards?

``I thought we'd be able to run better than that,'' Cutcliffe said.

But it was evident from the start that Cutcliffe knew the Vols would struggle to hammer out yards against what some Florida media members felt was the best and fastest defense the Gators have fielded in over 15 years.

In the first half on first down, Cutcliffe called three runs (for 4 yards) and eight passes (five completions for 76 yards, one interception).

In the second half, Cutcliffe felt he had to establish some semblance of a running game. He didn't. But he tried. Get this for first down runs: minus 1, 2, 0, 0, 3, 2, 3, 0. Mixed in was a 29-yard pass, until the final possession when the Vols were in a comeback mode. The Vols completed three straight first down passes on the final drive for 24 yards, but a critical 14-yard sack/intentional grounding call doomed UT's chances.

Tennessee was on the Florida 39 before the sack, close to James Wilhoit field-goal range. Tennessee was on its own 47 after the sack. An 8-yard pass and incompletion set up fourth-and-16 at the Florida 45 with 2:47 left.

Under the old clock rules - the clock didn't start on a change of possession like now - Cutcliffe said UT might have punted. But knowing you'll lose those 24 seconds forced the gamble on fourth down.

An interception ensued at the Florida 24 and the Gators ran out the clock.

``If we could have protected better, I don't think they could have covered us,'' Fulmer said.

Instead, the Vols had 220 total yards, just seven more than a year ago against the Mighty Gators.

``I didn't do a good enough job of helping the offense tonight,'' Cutcliffe said.

He's right. He should have been on the field run blocking. He should have been on the field pass protecting. He should have been on the field eluding tacklers. But that's not easy for a man who didn't have a lot to celebrate on his 52nd birthday. Leading 17-7 in the second half, Fulmer was asked if he let up.

``I don't think we took our foot off the gas pedal,'' Fulmer said. ``Florida rose to the occasion and we didn't.''

Tennessee did miss some opportunities. Ainge should have thrown a bullet on his first pass of the game to an open receiver, but he put too much air on the toss and it was intercepted. Later in the game, Robert Meachem was open deep along the right sideline but Ainge's underthrow cost the Vols a touchdown.

And linebacker Marvin Mitchell's 25-yard interception return for a touchdown - one play after a Florida 90-yard punt return was nullified by a penalty - was a killer. Had J.T. Mapu not slapped Chris Leak in the head, maybe the Vols pull out a win.

But it's hard to ignore that the best team in Neyland Stadium Saturday wasn't wearing orange. Florida outrushed the Vols 121 to minus-11. The Gators had 320 yards to 220. They had the ball for 10 more minutes. They controlled the line of scrimmage.

And they deserved to win.

EXTRA POINTS: Fulmer was 113-5 when leading entering the third period before the loss to Florida.... Since 1990, Florida is 111-16 when it scores first, 136-17 when it rushes for 100 yards, 89-5-1 when it holds an opponent to less than 100 yards and 119-10 when it outrushes a foe.... Meyer got his first big SEC road win after falling last season to Alabama, LSU and South Carolina.... Cutcliffe didn't fault the poise of Ainge, who was 17 of 32 for 183 yards with two interceptions.... UT is 6-6 in its last 12 home games and 1-7 against top 10 teams in its last ight at Neyland.


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