Vols look to end slump

All of the talk about Erik Ainge's injured ankle has obscured a rather significant fact: Even with Ainge at quarterback, Tennessee's offense has slumped badly since its 51-point explosion in Game 6 at Georgia.

In Game 7 against Alabama the Big Orange averaged less than three yards per rush, threw three interceptions and produced just one offensive touchdown. Only a heroic effort by the defense and clutch kicking by James Wilhoit enabled UT to win 16-13.

In Game 8 at South Carolina the Vols scored 31 points but seven could be attributed to the defense (Marvin Mitchell's 17-yard interception return) and seven more to special teams (Jonathan Hefney's 65-yard punt return). Really, the offensive unit mustered just 17 points. That's two points more than Randy Sanders' offense managed against the Gamecocks in 2005 ... right before he resigned.

With the Vol quarterback limping and the offense as a whole struggling, today is not a good time to be facing the No. 1 defense in college football. It's true that the LSU Tigers have fattened their record (6-2 overall, 2-2 SEC) and padded their offensive statistics against inferior opposition. But their defensive stats are legitimate. LSU's stop unit has proved its mettle against quality foes, as well as pushovers.

The Tigers limited Florida to 288 yards of total offense and 14 first downs. The 23-10 loss could be laid at the feet of quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who threw three interceptions and lost a fumble.

The Tigers limited Auburn to 182 yards of total offense and 13 first downs. That 7-3 loss could be attributed to a pitiful performance by the LSU attack.

Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe says Auburn's offensive futility against LSU defenders can be easily explained.

"Auburn just couldn't block ‘em," the Vol aide said. "That's what a lot of people are struggling with. They pressured the quarterback, they covered the receivers tight, they whipped ‘em at the line of scrimmage and they never let Kenny Irons (70 net rushing yards) get started. It was a combination of things."

Asked how important it is for Tennessee to convert on third down against LSU, Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer replied that FIRST DOWN is a bigger key against the Tigers.

Cutcliffe agrees.

"Once you get behind - down and distance-wise, against a team like that - it's very difficult to keep the ball and to keep moving and score points," he said. "When you give up sacks or you have mistakes that put you behind the chains, you're going to have a hard time playing offense against this team."

Especially if your offense already is in a bit of a slump.

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