UT O: Out of Balance

LSU had the personnel and preparation to pose plenty of problems for a Tennessee offense that couldn't move the ball on the ground and, consequently, was forced to play by the Tigers' rules.

Last week we wrote about how an opponent would eventually attempt to take away UT's short passing game as a top priority, instead of aligning itself to stop the run. LSU was able to to enforce that strategy because its DBs were exceptional in press coverage and its front seven was good enough to shut down the run without sacrificing pocket pressure.

Here's the top to bottom offensive ratings for the Tennessee-LSU 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.


QUARTERBACKS (91) No doubt there are those who believe a healthy Erik Ainge would have tipped the balance of this game in Tennessee's favor. Just as surely there is no way to verify a hypothetical. What we do know is that Ainge wasn't healthy, nor is he particularly mobile when he is healthy. That's a bad combination against a defense as fast, stealth and lethal as LSU's is. Ainge's showing against the Tigers in 2005 was as much about a bad match-up as it was a bad outing. During the three possessions in which Ainge was QB the Vols had a net gain of minus-five yards and he was 1 of 6 for 3 yards. (To be fair: UT's receivers failed to come up with a couple of catchable passes under heavy coverage.) We also know that Jonathan Crompton brought Tennessee from behind twice against the Tigers and connected on deep passes that were pinpoint accurate. He displayed the poise of a veteran and the heart of a warrior along with physical toughness, impressive strength and exceptional mobility. Another known is that Ainge went three and out on three possessions in the first quarter. Give Crompton those three possessions and there's a very good chance he would have marched the Vols to one touchdown which would the difference between victory and defeat. Again that's a hypothetical except in this case we do know Crompton directed UT to 10 points in three possessions in the second quarter. On his first significant series as a college player, Crompton led UT to a pair of first downs in what turned out to be the Vols longest possession of the contest (4:37). Not bad for a beginner going up against the toughest defense in the country. Phillip Fulmer said he went with Ainge as the starter because he felt that gave UT its best chance to win. In truth, it may have cost the Vols their best chance to win. That's not intended to be critical of Ainge or to diminish the experience factor, or to what he has accomplished this season. The situation was much the same in the 1997 Orange Bowl when Peyton Manning played hurt and limited what UT could do on offense. Obviously, Tee Martin wasn't a better QB than Mr. Manning, but for that game he was probably the better choice. Crompton proved he is a dynamic talent and an impact player against LSU. The debate about who is the better QB for Tennessee will wait for the offseason. Right now, the reeling Vols need all hands on deck, and all arms ready to fire.

RECEIVERS (83) This is the lowest grade UT's pass catchers have received this season and it's no coincidence it came against the best secondary the Vols have seen. Robert Meachem (five catches for 121 yards and two TDs) was his usual high-caliber self, but the rest of UT's receivers were a combined seven receptions for 65 yards. Bret Smith was on UT's participation chart but you couldn't prove it from any registered statistics. Jayson Swain was held to three catches for 26 yards. This lack of numbers underscores what a challenge it was for UT's wideouts to get off the line and into their routes against the Tigers' ultra tight coverage. Tight end Brad Cottam did come up with a catch for 25 yards while Chris Brown added two for 11 yards. Josh Briscoe and Lucas Taylor saw service but only contributed one catch for three yards. Neither showed strength or sure hands. Next year should be interesting for UT's QBs, especially if Meachem enters the NFL Draft.

LINEMEN (76) Tennessee's inability to run is nothing new and injuries among the backs have compounded the problem. However the harassment of UT's QBs was new and it disrupted the continuity of the air attack. The Vols had some success when they went to max protection, but couldn't control the football without hitting the intermediate zones. That required time to allow combination routes to develop and the O-line didn't provide enough of it. The front five did have to deal with some crowding of the box by LSU, but also failed to clear holes when the numbers were even.

RUNNING BACKS (66) This category is little more than Arian Foster who had a respectable 44 yards in 10 carries. Foster had one dash on a delay for 22 yards but his other nine carries netted the same yardage — 22. You can go nowhere in a hurry averaging 2.4 yards per carry. Montario Hardesty ran twice for five yards before being forced to the sidelines with an injury. The rest of UT's yards came from Crompton, who gained 22 yards in five carries, including a five-yard sack. There were some opportunities on the outside against LSU but UT's backs could never get around the corner. Having LaMarcus Coker's speed would have helped. Tennessee's backs didn't catch any passes in the game and the fullbacks didn't provide any clearing blocks.

OVERALL (81) There were a lot of things to like about the effort the Vols gave and the way they responded when behind, but the deficiencies in the running game are distressing, while the failure of any receiver other than Meachem to step up his game is disappointing. Crompton was a shot in the arm and Meachem is enjoying a sensational season.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories