Run game, run defense hurting UT

Two weeks ago, I was asked if I thought Tennessee would run the table and finish 11-1. My answer: No. I didn't think the Vols ran the ball well enough or stopped the run well enough to put together a nine-game winning streak. Saturday was more proof.

In LSU's 28-24 victory, the Tigers outrushed the Vols 231 yards to 62. That helped the Bayou Bengals hold the ball for 41 minutes and run 81 plays, 30 more than Tennessee.

LSU is the sixth team to rush for at least 120 yards on Tennessee and the third to exceed 160. Opponents are averaging 136.4 rushing yards per game, the second-highest figure over the past 12 years.

LSU is the fifth team to hold UT under 100 rushing yards, and the fourth in the SEC. Three straight league opponents have held the Vols under 100 on the ground. UT is averaging less than 60 rushing yards in five SEC games. The overall per game average is 107.8, the lowest figure since 1964.

``People say, `Why don't you do it (run the ball)?'' Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said. ``It's not that simple. It's the SEC, people make a commitment to stop the run. It's pretty stout people.''

And Tennessee doesn't have an answer.

Tim Irwin, a former Tennessee and NFL star offensive lineman, thinks the Vols are outmanned up front. He thinks Arron Sears is a good player, center Josh McNeil and right tackle Eric Young are average and guards David Ligon and Anthony Parker are below average.

Coupled with the loss of UT's most explosive running back (LaMarcus Coker), an ankle injury that has curtailed the burst of Arian Foster and the inability of Montario Hardesty to regain his form before last season's torn ACL, and you've got a problem that can't be fixed.

But Cutcliffe is trying.

Of UT's 62 rushing yards against LSU, 33 came on two plays – a 22-yard run by Foster and an 11-yard scramble by quarterback Jonathan Crompton. UT running backs had 12 carries for 49 yards.

Of UT's 50 snaps, the Vols passed 30 times and called about six more passes that Crompton turned into scrambles. UT called about 14 running plays.

Asked if UT has to run trick plays to get a run game going, Cutcliffe said: ``To a degree. As you look at the run game, you've got draws, you've got zone plays, you've got isolation and leads. We were trying to, by formation, give ourselves chances.''

Cutcliffe has asked himself more than once this season: Did I leave the run game too early?

But when you can't count on the run game, are you leaving it too early?

``People don't understand, sometimes you have to run it and run it and run it, then you pop one,'' Cutcliffe said. ``We've got good backs. I believe in them. I've got to do a better job of finding ways to help us have balance and when we have a little more balance, we're a pretty darn good offensive team.''

But that balance hasn't been there often. It was there against California and Georgia and Marshall and Memphis. It wasn't there for the other five games.

``It's not time to point fingers,'' Cutcliffe said. ``If I were to point fingers, I'd point them directly at me. I need to do a better job of getting us in position.''

But without a run game, it's harder to call plays. And without production on first down, it's harder to move the ball.

Meanwhile, for the second consecutive game, the opposing quarterback was the leading rusher. Last week against South Carolina, it was Syvelle Newton with 85 of his team's 165 yards. Saturday, it was 6-foot-6, 273-pound JaMarcus Russell, who had 71 yards on seven carries, including runs of 34 and 22 yards.

It wasn't surprising to see Newton scramble. Russell's runs were out of character. He had 75 gross yards – 23 net – in the first eight games. He gained 82 gross against UT.

LSU probably took a page out of South Carolina's playbook. With as much man-to-man as UT uses in the secondary, defensive coordinator John Chavis' scheme is susceptible to a quarterback draw or scramble. Russell had huge running lanes once he broke through the line of scrimmage.

Arkansas doesn't have a quarterback who can scramble like Newton or Russell. But it does have the SEC's best running back in Darren McFadden, who rushed for a career-high 219 yards against a Gamecocks' defense that limited UT's running backs to 53 yards on 20 carries.

That's not a good match-up for UT's run defense.

LACK OF FIRST-DOWN PRODUCTION CRITICAL

On 15 of 17 first downs against LSU, the Vols gained 3 yards or less. That ultimately hurt the third-down conversion ratio (five of 13) and time of possession.

UT had the ball for 19 minutes and 50 snaps against LSU. The Vols had 18 snaps in the second half, three in the first 12 minutes of the third quarter.

Of Tennessee's 10 possessions before the end-of-the-game drive, the Vols ran three or fewer plays six times. Four were punts, one was an interception and one was a one-play touchdown pass.

But the defense was also to blame for staying on the field 41 minutes. LSU converted 11 of 17 third- or fourth-down plays. SHOULD UT HAVE CALLED TIMEOUTS?

Should UT have called timeouts on LSU's game-winning drive to secure more time on the clock for a rally?

With 2:15 left, LSU converted a fourth-and-8 to the UT 34-yard line. LSU had one timeout left, UT had three. If you're UT, do you call a timeout then?

On the next play, LSU completed an 11-yard pass to the 23. Do you call timeout after a first down? Then, Jacob Hester ripped off a 9-yard run to the 14. Do you call a timeout on a second-and-one with about a minute left?

On the next play, LSU ran for 8 yards to the 6. Forty-one seconds remained before Russell threw incomplete out of the end zone.

Russell stepped out of bounds on a 2-yard run, then threw a touchdown pass with 9 seconds left.

After which down do you start calling timeouts?

I don't think calling timeouts would have helped preserve much time on the clock. Of course, you don't know if that would have changed LSU's sequence of play calls.

But I would have called a timeout or two just to regroup and rest a tired defense.

Contrary to some opinions, UT rushed at least four the majority of snaps on LSU's last drive. They just had a bunch of tired linemen who couldn't get to Russell. A timeout or two might have helped the rush.

EXTRA POINTS: LSU outgained Tennessee 107 yards to minus-5 in the first quarter. The Vols had 253 yards in the final three quarters, which isn't bad against the nation's No. 1 defense. … UT has 14 interceptions, 13 by defensive backs. … In the first six games, UT's first-team offense scored a touchdown on 24 of 52 possessions. In the last three games, UT has scored a touchdown on five of 32 drives.


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