Tampa slugfest

Tennessee gained just 96 rushing yards in its regular-season finale against a Kentucky defense that might be the worst in NCAA Div. 1-A. So, the ground game faces a stern test in the Outback Bowl against a Penn State defense that ranks among the best in Div. 1-A.

For what it's worth, the Vols seem to relish the challenge.

Junior quarterback Erik Ainge recently noted that the rushing attack "has got to be good" if the Big Orange is to beat the Nittany Lions, adding: "We've got to block well; we've got to run well."

The ground game was generally unproductive against Air Force (79 yards), South Carolina (71), Alabama (57) and Kentucky (96), yet Tennessee still won those games by piling up yardage through the air. The Vols threw for 333 yards vs. Air Force, 302 vs. Alabama, 254 vs. Carolina and 240 vs. Kentucky.

The Big Orange may need a similarly productive passing attack Jan. 1 in Tampa if it is to create some running room against a salty Penn State rushing defense.

"How well we're able to throw the football is going to determine how well we're able to run, too," Ainge said. "If we can't run the ball, that makes throwing it that much harder. If we CAN throw the ball, that makes running it that much easier.

"We just need to go in with the mindset of having a balanced attack and go where the game takes us."

Senior guard David Ligon echoes those sentiments. Although he'd love for Tennessee to pile up 150 or more yards on the ground, he correctly notes that point totals – not rushing totals – determine who wins and who loses.

"Just put points on the board ... it doesn't matter how," he said.

After watching film of the Nittany Lions, Ligon realizes points may be hard to come by. Penn State's defense is capable of shutting down just about anyone.

"They've got some really good front seven guys," he noted. "Whether we were No. 1 in the nation in rushing or not, it was going to be a challenge facing these guys."

The obvious question: Are the Vols up to that challenge?

"Do I believe we can get it done? Absolutely," Ligon said. "Do I believe they have the ability to stop us? Absolutely. They're the 16th-ranked (defense) in the country, and they played Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin, so that says a lot about the defense.

"It's going to be a tough game. We expect it to be. That's why you play bowl games. You put together teams that are somewhat evenly matched, and you have a great game for the entire country to watch."

"That's what we expect it to be. If we can take care of it and put it away early, we'd love to do that, but I think it's going to be a slugfest."

There's nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned slugfest. The fans love to watch them and the athletes – particularly offensive linemen – love to play them.

"It's exciting," Ligon said. "I'm pumped, not only because Joe Paterno's a living legend in college football but we've got a two-time All-America middle linebacker (Paul Posluszny), a two-time Bednarik Award winner and who knows what else he's won? Then you've got Dan Connor, who is probably just as good as a junior as Posluszny. Next year he'll probably be winning those awards.

"We're playing some special players and a special coach. It's a big challenge, and I know the offensive line is looking forward to it."

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