O My: UT's Offense Outstanding

This was another step up the ladder of consistency and production for Tennessee's offense under OC David Cutcliffe. The Vols achieved ideal balance with 205 yards rushing and 361 yards passing. It was arguably the most complete game UT has played since the 2002 Citrus Bowl victory over Michigan.

However the non-conference part of the schedule is over and the real test begins Saturday night between the hedges in Athens, Ga. The Vols face their toughest stretch of the 2006 campaign, and the offensive line holds the key to their success. Tennessee has proven that if the line provides time and space, the offense is irrepressible.

Here's the top to bottom offensive ratings for the Tennessee-Memphis 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 (4.5)

OFFENSIVE LINE (96) Memphis was more athletic on defense than Air Force, but probably the worst UT has faced, or will face, this season. Some of that was due to a change in defenses made over the course of a bye week by Tigers' head coach Tommy West. That doesn't distract from the fact this was a dominate performance in which the Vols amassed 566 yards and 41 points. Tennessee never approached such totals in the entire 2005 season. It was the most points UT had scored since the 43 compiled in 2004 game at South Carolina. In 2005, the Vols never reached the 30-point barrier in regulation play of any game. The O-line was the key to this victory as Memphis' defense never even sniffed a sack, and was often overwhelmed at the point of attack by the Vols power running game. The only drawback in an otherwise superb performance was UT's inability to punch the ball into the end zone on four attempts inside the six. Some of that responsibility falls on the running backs.

QUARTERBACKS (94) Erik Ainge's 23-of-27 effort for 324 yards and four touchdowns will go down as one of the best in UT history. The Oregon junior has taken his game to a new level and his recovery from a disastrous 2005 season is nearly complete. Of course, this task was made much easier by a base 4-3 defensive scheme that played right into Tennessee's hands. The Memphis attack was very vanilla because it was installed in two weeks time. It's to their credit the Tigers managed to get lined up in the right spots, considering the abrupt overhaul was very different from the 3-3 blitzing scheme deployed under former defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn. Still Ainge found the range and passed the football with remarkable efficiency. He also checked into some good running plays and was poised in the pocket. He is on rhythm and clicking on all cylinders. He had only one bad stretch in the first half when he forced a pass that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by the Tigers, and when he burned a couple of timeouts in order to avoid a delay of game penalties. However, the Tigers were called for lining up offsides, and the timeouts did not become a factor before the half ended. Jonathan Crompton came in for one series and for the second consecutive week led UT on a scoring drive. He completed 2-of-2 passes for 37 yards and made a nice save on a bad shotgun snap. Crompton needs all the reps he can get considering he is next in line behind Ainge. Bo Hardegree saw his first collegiate action, running UT's last two series which resulted in a fumble and the Vols only punt of the game.

RECEIVERS (94) Once again UT's wideouts woke up the echoes of Wide Receiver U, as Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain played like Carl Pickens and Alvin Harper. Meachem had four catches for 157 yards and an 84-yard TD. Swain had three receptions for 64 yards and two touchdowns. Bret Smith had five catches for 46 yards and a TD. Ainge has so much trust in his receivers that he'll just put the ball up and let them go get it. The 84-yard strike to Meachem was under thrown but the Tulsa junior made an excellent adjustment and got a block that freed him for the score. Swain made a nice diving catch in the end zone that Ainge threw to a spot only Swain could reach. Smith put his head down and powered across the goal line for another TD. UT also threw to the tight ends, completing five passes to Chris Brown for 24 yards and another to Brad Cottam for 11 yards and a first down. Compare that to the entire 2003 season when the Vols only completed one pass to the tight end. Sophomore Josh Briscoe had a catch for 23 yards and Quentin Hancock made a 27-yard reception. Nine UT players caught passes in the game, and some outstanding downfield blocks added a lot of YAC (Yards After Catch) to the Vols attack. A couple of drops reduce this score a few points.

RUNNING BACKS (88) LaMarcus Coker followed his breakout showing against Marshall with another big performance of 125 yards on 26 carries for an average of 4.8 yards per pop against Memphis. Montario Hardesty gained 44 yards in 14 attempts, and David Yancey added 24 yards in five carries, including UT's only rushing TD. This score comes down because of fumbles by Coker and JaKouri Williams, plus UT's difficulty scoring on the ground inside the 10. Hardesty has a lot of potential but he needs to be more productive in the red zone. Coker has a tendency, like many young backs, to bounce most everything outside. The Vols miss Arian Foster's vision and power around the goal. When he returns to action from an ankle sprain look for the Vols to split most of the reps between him and Coker, while Hardesty could see duty as a slot back because of his speed and ability to catch the ball. If isolated on a linebacker he poses a multitude of problems for the defense. It will make UT's running game more diverse and effective. To this point the Vol fullbacks have been largely limited to a lead blocking role, and not always with the best results. Kudos to Yancey for making the most of his opportunities.

OVERALL (93) A grade A outing for UT's O. There's still room for improvement, especially among the running backs, but the Vols have more big-play ability than they've exhibited at any point in the last half decade. Play calling has kept defenses guessing. Regular use of the reverse forces defenders to stay home and takes away a lot of opponent aggression. Fewer mistakes and better execution all the way around. Keeping Coach Cutcliffe after this remarkable resurrection may be Tennessee's biggest problem of all.


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