Grade A Offense

Although Tennessee has owned the Vanderbilt series in no uncertain terms for over eight decades, the success of the Vols offense has been a matter of feast or famine — either the scoreboard lights up like a pinball machine or it barely flickers to life.

Let's take a couple of consecutive three-year samples for a quick study. During 1992, 1993 and 1994 the Vols scored victories of 29-24, 62-14, 65-0, respectively, for an average of 52 points per game. That was followed by a three-year period — 1995, 1996 and 1997 — in which the Vols scored victories of 14-7, 12-7, 17-10 for an average of 14.3 points per contest. That's a dramatic difference made all the more improbable since the latter span covered Peyton Manning's sophomore, junior and senior seasons.

Woody Widenhofer, who once coordinated Pittsburgh's famed Steel Curtain defense, was Vanderbilt's head coach during the Manning years and always had an outstanding game plan. Widenhofer's grand schemes cost Manning votes if not the Heisman Trophy in 1997.

But the low scores weren't the result of scheming alone. The Commodores always lay it on the line against UT and that may have something to do with the significant difference in point production over the years. For every 10-7 or 13-10 game there is a 41-14, 38-0 no contest. It's either nail-biter or blowout.

It may be that Vanderbilt's emotions can keep it close, but if the Dores fall behind early, and their emotional bubble is burst, the gates to the promised land swing wide open and a Big Orange offensive avalanche pours through.

That's more or less what happened on Saturday, as UT spread the field and used its athleticism to isolate favorable match-ups. Then as Vanderbilt's defense attempted to fan out more to protect its flanks, the Vols landed the heavy body blows off tackle. It was a steady pick, pick, pound, as Tennessee scored twice in every quarter. Get them loose and give them the goose. Short passes began turning into big gains, small runs became big bites. First Tennessee took Vandy's legs, then their energy and finally their will.

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


OFFENSIVE LINE (94) Isn't it amazing how much better everybody looks when the line blocks well? Okay, maybe it isn't amazing. Under Phillip Fulmer it's been a given that UT's gridiron success depended on a balanced offense, until it wore down a defense and could rely almost exclusively on the run. Last week the O-line earned the lowest grade of the season for allowing four sacks and failing to establish running room. This week it tops our report card for posting 163 yards on the ground, 266 yards through the air and 39 points on the board. The O-line prevented pocket leakage and gave the QB time to scan the field and find the open receiver. It was also encouraging to see linemen leading interference in the open field for a change. Arron Sears will be missed. Josh McNeil is making steady progress as a redshirt freshman in a difficult role. Guard play was much improved. Allowed one coverage sack.

RUNNING BACKS (91) This was the second coming out party of LaMarcus Coker, as the Antioch native returned to Metro Nashville and compiled 126 yards in only 10 carries for an average of nearly 13 yards per run. Coker's 87-yard gallop was reminiscent of his big run against Marshall earlier this season. It was also a reminder of how much his explosive style has been missed by the Vols. His first touchdown put the Vols ahead for good. His last touchdown put the game out of reach. Coker might rightfully remind some Tennessee fans of Jay Graham. Redshirt freshman Montario Hardesty started and ran for 52 yards in 9 carries for an average of 5.8 yards. Hardesty hit the holes hard and ran with good second effort. He appears to be more comfortable and is becoming more instinctive. He ripped off a nifty 23-yard run in the third quarter.

QUARTERBACKS (90) Erik Ainge was especially sharp despite a seven-quarter absence with a high ankle sprain. Did a good job of finding the open target and putting the ball in locations for the wideouts to make plays. Quick release. Outstanding accuracy as exhibited by his 21-of-26 completion rate. Good pocket presence. Very relaxed. He may have been a little too relaxed when he was hit from behind and fumbled the ball for UT's only turnover. But with the kind of time the O-line was giving him, it's understandable if his internal clock wasn't in alarm mode. The only other knock was a low third-down conversion rate (3 of 11). Jonathan Crompton got in for a couple of late series with the second team, but offensive play was pretty ragged with penalties, dropped passes and missed blocks. Kudos to Jim Bob Cotter for closing out the game in fine veteran form.

RECEIVERS (88) There really wasn't a lot to differentiate the play of UT's QBs, RBs and receivers, as this order could be justifiably reversed. Robert Meachem (7 catches, 97 yards, 1 TD) and Jayson Swain (6 catches, 76 yards, 1 TD) were on their game and Bret Smith added a couple of catches for 29 yards. The big surprise is the continuing progress of Brad Cottam as a pass catching tight end. The 6-foot-8 Cottam hauled in 3 passes for 53 yards, including a game-long 45-yard reception. The importance of having a tight end as a receiving threat is that it forces the defense to account for him and not assume he's blocking for the run. That means more options for the O.C. and more headaches for the D.C. H-back Chris Brown had a catch for nine yards that he finished with physical flair. The real concern about this group is that no underclassmen are contributing on a consistent basis. If Meachem declares for the Draft, Trooper Taylor will have to work more magic.

OVERALL (92) Granted this wasn't the type of fast, athletic defense that LSU and Arkansas deployed in their victories over the Vols, but it's pretty solid, plays good position and sound technique. Tennessee did a good job of attacking and kept the Dores back on their heels. The bottom-line of this performance can be summed up in three words — BALANCE IS BEAUTIFUL.

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