One strange Homecoming

You won't find a stranger day of football. Tennessee's homecoming game against Marshall was delayed 55 minutes because of lightning. The Vol Walk was canceled for the first time since its inception in 1989. The team didn't run through the band's formation of the `T' for the first time since that tradition began in 1965. And Tennessee's run-game didn't show up for three quarters.

But then along came LaMarcus Coker with an electrifying 89-yard run, and suddenly, the ground attack was back as the Vols defeated Marshall 33-7 on a miserable, rainy day attended by about 60,000 at Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee rushed for 176 yards against Marshall, 140 in the fourth quarter. Coker's stunning run gave the Vols a 23-7 lead and a huge lift. After a Jonathan Hefney interception set up a field goal, Tennessee ran seven times for 61 yards to eat the clock and score the final touchdown with 23 seconds left.

As positive as the finish was, you had to wonder about the beginning.

Tennessee's plan was to rely on the short passing game, then utilize the run. But for the most part, the run wasn't there. The Vols' offensive line didn't get a push on Marshall, rushing for 36 yards through three quarters, 20 on Montario Hardesty's score. Seven first-down runs got 10 yards before Hardesty's burst.

If you have that much trouble running against Marshall, how are you going to fare against Georgia and Alabama and LSU?

Or, perhaps, the Vols found something in that fourth quarter. One thing is for sure – they found Coker.

``His speed certainly makes a difference,'' Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said. ``He's a good player. He's earned more playing time, that's obvious.''

Question is: Why didn't Coker get a carry in the last two games?

Cutcliffe said Coker has been bothered by a hip flexor, and Cutcliffe wasn't sure on Monday how much Coker would even play.

But with Hardesty not getting much done – eight carries for 21 yards, 20 on one run – Coker rushed for 146 yards on eight carries, or 18.2 per carry. Take away Coker's long-distance effort and he still had 57 yards on seven attempts, over 8 yards per carry.

Cutcliffe wasn't ready to say Coker has earned the start against Memphis this Saturday, but Coker has entered the mix. With Arian Foster bothered by a sprained ankle – he didn't dress out for Marshall – and Hardesty averaging 1.4 yards in his last two games, Coker might be the man.

``He's got some savvy and competitiveness,'' Cutcliffe said. ``We've challenged LeMarcus to keep growing as a complete player, practice player, everyday player. He's a freshman. He's getting it all figured out. And it's exciting to see him coming on.''

Few plays this season have been bigger than Coker's 89-yard sprint – the third longest scoring run in UT history.

``I think it gave all of us a little more confidence,'' Cutcliffe said. ``It excited our coaches. It excited our team. You could feel it all the way up in the press box. Maybe that's the boost of confidence we needed to carry it into the rest of the season.''

Cutcliffe complained about his offense not having a rhythm against Marshall.

``We were erratic,'' Cutcliffe said. ``We made some plays but nothing consistently.''

Quarterback Erik Ainge had another solid day: 18 of 27 for 258 yards and one touchdown -- a brilliant play-fake toss to Jayson Swain. Ainge's interception and sack when in field goal range drew the ire of some fans. But former UT quarterback Pay Ryan, who toiled a dozen years in the NFL, came to Ainge's defense.

``The expectations fans have of quarterbacks has become nuts,'' Ryan said. ``They're not perfect. They're going to make mistakes. They're not going to complete every pass. I think Erik Ainge is playing winning football. That's all you can ask. … He's 100 percent better than he was last year.''

It was clear the Vols' game plan was to use the short passing game. With Marshall playing soft on the corners, the Vols hit Robert Meachem (six for 76 yards), Bret Smith (three for 41) and Swain (five for 98) repeatedly.

The inclement weather had Cutcliffe concerned him about his game plan, but only a little bit.

``Heck, we've got a quarterback from Oregon (Ainge),'' Cutcliffe said. ``He's certainly played in the rain before.

``And as long as you're going underneath with the ball, you can throw effectively in the rain. You know where you're going, they don't. Defensive backs are a little more tentative. Pass rushers are a little more tentative.''

Tennessee's run game was tentative as well, until Coker's scintillating run.

It might be just the spark the offense needs.

Game Notes: Marshall ran the option eight times, gaining 27 yards, 22 on one run. Four option plays gained 1 or fewer yards and another resulted in a lost fumble. … UT safety Demetrice Morley, who had no tackles against Air Force or Marshall, had nine against Marshall and recovered a fumble. … UT's starting tailbacks in the last three games have 32 carries for 57 yards. … Britton Colquitt averaged a career-high 56 yards on three punts to hike his average to 47.3 yards. Older brother Dustin, who attended the game last night because the Chiefs have an open date, is averaging 44.5 with Kansas City. … Not knowing when the game would start was a ``setup,'' Cutcliffe said, with guys laying around, some sleeping. Swain said he ate some potato chips. ``I was already a little nervous about this one and when all that started occurring, it made you a little bit more nervous,'' Cutcliffe said. … The win was the 75th for Phillip Fulmer at Neyland Stadium. … Fulmer is now 33-2 against non-SEC foes at home (losing to Miami 2002 and Notre Dame (2004).


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