Big Plays Raise Grade

First things first. Four games into the 2006 season, Tennessee has shown no signs of letting up on the accelerator. The Vols have come out and played with outstanding effort and high energy every Saturday in September. They are also making fewer fundamental mistakes than the last several years and have displayed a lot of resiliency.

Those are signs of a healthy program and a motivated team, albeit one that can and should get better as the season unfolds. With that in mind we take a look at UT's offense in the Marshall game.

While it was good to see the Vols establish a running game, maintain some balance and strike with big plays, the total point production could have been better against a Marshall squad that surrendered 31 to Hofstra and 42 to West Virginia in the first half. Weather was probably a contributing factor, but the offensive line has to become more consistent if this is to become a squad that can control the ball and win the war of attrition.

Here's the top to bottom offensive ratings for the Tennessee-Marshall game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are winning marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but problematical and won't be good enough to defeat a quality opponent. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. Special teams are included among defensive ratings but they aren't factored into the defense's total score. An opponent degree of difficulty (between 1 and 10) has been added to the formula.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY (3.5)

RECEIVERS (90) The difference between Tennessee's receivers this year and last year is like vacations in the Arctic and Amazon. Against Marshall they made all the catches they should have made and a few they shouldn't. They also ran excellent routes and added yards after the catch. Jayson Swain (5 catches for 98 yards and a touchdown) and Robert Meachem (6 catches for 76 yards) are having career seasons while Brett Smith (3 for 41 yards) is getting healthy, adding another big play threat to the Vols' offensive arsenal. Those three accounted for 215 of UT's 436 total yards against Marshall. Dare we say: this may just be the best group of receivers in the SEC. And to think all it took was a better diet and good coaching.

RUNNING BACKS (87) LaMarcus Coker came up with the Vols' biggest play for the second straight game, and gave UT's ground game a major boost with his 89-yard TD gallop in the fourth quarter. He appears to be the type of home run hitter UT's backfield has been missing since Travis Stephens' senior season, and his game-high 146 yards in seven carries is the best production since Stephens' memorable 206-yard game against Florida in 2001. Of course, Florida and Marshall are different stories and that's why this score isn't higher. In truth, all of Coker's yardage came in the fourth quarter when Marshall's defense seemed deflated and dispirited due to lack of support. Ditto for David Yancey's 23 yards in five carries with a touchdown. Up until that point in the game Montario Hardesty found the going tough (8 carries for 29 yards), however he did run with authority in the red zone, scored on a 20-yard run and caught a pass for 11 yards.

QUARTERBACKS (85) Give Erik Ainge time to throw and he'll slice up a secondary with the aplomb of a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. For the most part the offensive line has been providing him with outstanding protection and he has been on the money with his throws. His play fake on a 47-yard scoring strike to Swain was a thing of beauty and he went through his progressions like a pro. However he hasn't made plays outside the pocket and poses little running threat. In close games against quality opponents that is often the difference between victory and defeat. Another area for concern is his TD to INT ratio of 1 to 3 the past two games after a 7 to 2 ratio in the first two. The Vols are vulnerable to any team that can stop the run and create pressure with its four down linemen. Jonathan Crompton saw action for the second time this season and handed the ball off seven times in a nine play, 61 yard scoring drive.

OFFENSIVE LINE (79) The good news is that UT looked more physical at the point of attack. The bad news is that it was against an undersized defensive front, and the line still struggled to establish a consistent ground attack through the first three quarters of the game. In fairness, Marshall, like all of UT's opponents this year, have been overplaying the run and inviting Tennessee to pass. The Vols have passed the ariel exam, but an offense can not thrive by the pass alone. In order to sustain drives, control the ball, clock and field position, which is UT's standard operating procedure under Fulmer, you must sometimes pick up positive yardage against stacked alignments. To this point, Tennessee's O-line hasn't shown that ability. Pass protection has been a plus against the base four-man pass rush, but the Vols haven't picked up blitzes very well, and there was a lot of seepage against Marshall once it abandoned its stop-the-run-first approach. The skill players are present to make UT an explosive offensive force. The O-line remains the key to unleashing that talent.

OVERALL (84) This score could be lower considering the quality of Marshall's defense, but the Vols also had to contend with weather and coming off a tough loss to Florida. Their domination of the fourth quarter was a big improvement over the first three games. Even with its shortcomings the offense is averaging an impressive 31 points per game.


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