Third-and-short no 'gimme'

It's not as easy to rack up big rushing numbers in college football as it once was. Tennessee averaged over 200 rushing yards per season for six years but has topped that figure just once since 1994. The 150-yard mark has replaced 200 as an accepted goal.

In the SEC, there was a time when four or five teams averaged over 200 rushing yards per game. This season, Arkansas is the top rushing team with 235.2 yards per game, almost 80 more than runner-up Florida (157.7). Two SEC teams are averaging less than 90 rushing yards per game. Ten average less than 155.

By contrast, two SEC defenses are allowing fewer than 75 rushing yards per game and eight allow fewer than 130, leaving no doubt this is a run-stopping league.

More and more, defenses are stacking the line to stop the run, trying to force teams into a one-dimensional passing game.

That's made it more difficult to ``pound the rock'' with consistent success.

``As I've looked at it with envy through the years, the offenses I like are the ones that on third-and-4 don't have to throw every time,'' Cutcliffe said. ``They've got some balance there. They can run it.

``Nowadays, when you make third-and-one, you wipe sweat off your brow because if you'll look at it, I don't care what league, look at our league and the NFL, look at how many people are stopped running the football on third-and-one.''

Cutcliffe said it's no longer a ``gimme'' to convert third-and-one, not against a good defense. He includes Alabama in that mix.

``You've got to really be sharp, know what you're doing, create good angles,'' Cutcliffe said. ``The backs have got to understand what you're trying to get accomplished in that situation. Those are critical. You'd like to say you'll make 100 percent when you've got it third-and-six-inches and third-and-one. But you go look at any team, any game, it's not (100 percent).''

Cutcliffe said that affects play calling. It used to be that on second-and-one, you might go for the home run. But with less assurance you'll convert on third-and-short, you might take a more conservative approach.

``I think about that all the time and it probably does (affect play calling),'' Cutcliffe said. ``You look at it through the years. You watch. How many times do you end up punting when you should have made a first down on second down and you end up short on third down? Those memories are there.

``We want to maintain a certain aggressive air about us. But we also look at ways to lay ball off. We do more of that now than we've done because (it's hard to convert on third-and-short).''


Despite Tennessee's terrific offensive success through the first half of the season, Cutcliffe said there are several areas in which his unit can improve.

``Running the ball on a consistent basis is what we have to do to be good down the stretch,'' Cutcliffe said. ``We all know the game we lost (Florida) we didn't run the ball at all. That's an understatement.

``There have been times when we've been consistently good and there have been times we've been consistently average, maybe even poor. So that's the first thing we're really working on, trying to become a more physical offense, which will do nothing but help our throwing game. ‘'

Cutcliffe also said Erik Ainge, who leads the SEC in passing efficiency, can improve his mechanics and footwork and pocket presence.

``Those things can go to another level,'' Cutcliffe said. ``We're trying to get better at some technical things against certain coverages, some throws we're trying to make. One of the big issues is using our eyes to move defenders. He's really done a good job of that.''

EXTRA POINTS: In Alabama's last two wins over Tennessee, the Tide has 10 takeaways: six in 2002, four last season. … The teams disagree on the series record. UT says it's 44-37-7 in favor of Alabama. Alabama has it at 44-37-8. … UT's Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain are second in the nation in combined receiving yards per game despite Swain going catchless against Georgia after suffering an ankle injury. … With Cutcliffe as UT's offensive coordinator, the Vols have scored at least 30 points in 52 of 80 games (65 percent), including five of six this year. … Erik Ainge is seventh on UT's all-time passing chart (3,846) and needs 243 yards to pass Heath Shuler for sixth.

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