A tale of two tips

The football gods are fickle but the breaks usually even out over time. That proved to be the case for Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge during Saturday's 33-7 defeat of Marshall in a rain-soaked Homecoming game.

Ainge's outing included two passes that tipped off the hands of intended receivers. The first ricocheted off the fingertips of Bret Smith to Vol teammate Jayson Swain, turning a third-and-12 situation into a 20-yard gain and a crucial first-and-10. Montario Hardesty scored on the very next play, boosting Tennessee's lead from 9-7 to 16-7.

"Anytime that happens you think you've got the football gods on your side," Ainge deadpanned.

After gaining a completion from the first tipped ball, Ainge lost an interception because of the second. He threw a pass slightly behind Robert Meachem, who deflected the ball directly to Marshall linebacker Matt Couch. Couch's 15-yard return gave the Thundering Herd possession at Tennessee's 44-yard line but Marshall could not capitalize.

Ainge noted that the tipped passes were "two plays that show the quarterbacks and receivers we've got some work to do to get on the same page."

Actually, the quarterbacks and receivers have been on the same page pretty much all season. Ainge completed 18 of 27 passes for 258 yards vs. Marshall and is completing better than 60 percent of his throws on the season. Even in Games 2 and 3, when Tennessee's ground attack stalled, the passing game clicked.

The aerial attack carried the Vols for most of Game 4, as well. Ainge threw for 223 yards in the first three quarters, while the ground game managed just 36 yards. With Marshall keying on the passing attack, however, Tennessee ran for 140 yards in the fourth quarter to win going away. No one was happier to see the ground game spring to life than Erik Ainge.

"You have to be able to run the ball; you have to be able to throw the ball," he said. "One-dimensional teams in the SEC … you might win some games but you're not going to win championships. I thought our ground game did a good job tonight, especially in the second half. That was a credit to LaMarcus (Coker), Montario (Hardesty) and our offensive line."

It was mostly a credit to LaMarcus. Coker rushed just eight times but gained 146 yards. He provided the speed and big-play dimension Tennessee clearly lacked in Game 2 (79 net rushing yards) and Game 3 (minus-11 rushing yards).

Coker seemed to get more comfortable the more he played. His first four carries vs. Marshall gained 6, 5, 3 and 4 yards – an average of 4.5 yards per attempt. His last four carries netted 89, 1, 15 and 23 yards – an average of 32 yards per rush. And you can't credit his big finish to fatigue among Marshall defenders. The Thundering Herd stop unit was on the field just six plays in the entire third quarter, so it was still reasonably fresh when Coker went wild in the final period.

In addition to Coker's 89-yard run, the Vols had one other big-play score. That came on a third-and-one at the Marshall 47-yard line, when Ainge fooled the defense with a nifty play fake, then hit a wide-open Swain for the touchdown. Ainge said the credit for the TD should go to offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, the man who called the play.

"That was a great call," Ainge said. "He told us that the first chance we got we were going to let her rip. Their free safety liked to bite on play-action, especially third-and-one."

Actually, both Marshall safeties crowded the line of scrimmage on the play, assuming the Vols would run between the tackles to try and pick up the needed yard.

He (Cutcliffe) knew they (safeties) would be up in the box to help," Ainge said. "I actually could've sold (the play fake) a little better. I think I held the ball out and they saw it. I think that's why they reacted pretty quick, but it was good enough to get the job done."


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