Matchup: Penn State

This week, Tennessee takes on Penn State in Tampa. This is our take on this Vols vs Nittany Lions matchup. When David Cutcliffe was hired as Tennessee's offensive coordinator, one of his first directives was for the offensive linemen to lose between seven and 20 pounds. He wanted more mobile, agile, athletic linemen to improve a pedestrian running game.

The linemen lost weight, but the run game didn't improve.

The Vols averaged 110.1 rushing yards per game, 18.2 fewer yards than in 2005. They had seven games in which they rushed for less than 100 yards – four in a row (Alabama, South Carolina, LSU, Arkansas).

The run game ranked 94th in the nation. It was UT's worst run offense since 1964. It was UT's worst run offense since Phillip Fulmer became a UT coach in 1980.

Cutcliffe said he didn't think the Vols could have won nine games with such a weak rushing output.

``I thought we'd run the football better than that,'' Cutcliffe said. ``When we opened up against California (with 216 rushing yards), I felt good about being able to run the ball.

``I think the old saying you have to be able to run the football in this league to win is generally true.''

Yes, it is. And the inability to run cost the Vols the Florida game and contributed to losing to LSU. In Tennessee's three defeats, the Vols ran for minus-11 yards (Florida), 62 (LSU) and 92 (Arkansas). That's an average of 47.7 yards per game. UT averaged 140.9 rushing yards in its nine wins.

``At times, we ran it when we had to,'' Cutcliffe said. ``We came up with some big plays in the run game. Let's not forget that. It's just at times, it completely disappeared.''

If it disappears against Penn State in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl, the Vols will be in trouble. The Nittany Lions not only have a stout defense, they stone wall the run. Opponents averaged just 87.8 rushing yards per game, 10th in the nation. Michigan State had 14 rushing yards. Northwestern, Minnesota and Purdue each had less than 85.

Ohio State ran for 138 yards, Michigan 116. Wisconsin had 167.

``They've got some really good front seven guys,'' said UT senior guard David Ligon. ``Whether we were No. 1 in the nation in rushing or not, it's going to be a challenge against these guys.

``I do believe we can get it done, absolutely. Do I believe they have the ability to stop us? Absolutely. They're No. 16 in the country (in total defense) and they've played Notre Dame and Michigan and Ohio State and Wisconsin. That says a lot of things about their defense.

``It's going to be a tough game. We expect it to be. I think it's going to be a slugfest.''

Does he relish going against a tough run defense?

``It's exciting,'' Ligon said. ``I'm pumped. Not only because you've got Joe Paterno on the sideline, a living legend of college football, you've got a two-time All-American middle linebacker (Paul Posluszny) and Dan Conner, who's probably just as good. We're playing some special players and a special coach. It's going to be a big challenge. As an offensive line, we're looking forward to it.''

Here's a look at the position-by-position breakdown.

Game #: 1129
Site: Tampa
Date: Jan. 1
Conference: Big10
Coach Match-up:
For the Vols - Fulmer and for the Nittany Lions - Paterno


Vols

Nittany Lions
OLCOMMENTSOL

The Nittany Lions average 147.3 rushing yards per game and allowed 23 sacks. PSU has three senior starters. Two other starters are redshirt sophomores. UT averaged a mere 110.1 rushing yards per game but was sound in pass protection (17 sacks). UT will start two seniors, two freshmen and a junior.

QB'sCOMMENTSQB's

Penn State's Anthony Morelli has completed 53.7 percent of his passes for 2,227 yards and 10 touchdowns with eight interceptions. His pass-efficiency rating is 110.3. The offense has had six games of 17 or fewer points, including three against Wisconsin, six against Ohio State and 10 against Michigan. Erik Ainge's rating is 155.4. He is on pace for a school-record for completion percentage (.669). He's got 2,722 yards, 19 touchdowns, eight interceptions.

RB'sCOMMENTSRB's

Michael Hunt, a 230-pounder, has 1,228 rushing yards (5.0 per carry) and 11 touchdowns. UT is led by LaMarcus Coker (660 yards, 6.4 per carry). Montario Hardesty (3.7 per carry) and Arian Foster (3.3) were not productive this season.

WR'sCOMMENTSWR's

Deon Butler (45 catches) and Jordan Norwood (41) have the most catches, but Derrick Williams (37) is the most dynamic, although Williams averaged only 11.2 yards per catch. None of Penn State's top four receivers averaged more than 12.5 yards per catch. UT is led by Robert Meachem (67-1,265), Jayson Swain (42-604) and Bret Smith (39-453).


Vols

Nittany Lions
DLCOMMENTSDL

The Nittany Lions allow just 87.8 rushing yards per game and recorded 38 sacks. Tackle Jay Alford leads the team in sacks (eight) but tackle Ed Johnson (five sacks) has been suspended for the game. UT allows 143.7 rushing yards per game and registered just 17sacks. Edge:

LB'sCOMMENTSLB's

Posluszny is a Butkus winner who registered a team-high 108 sacks despite moving to a new position – middle linebacker -- and battling a knee injury. UT coaches think Connor (103 tackles) is just as good. UT is led by Marvin Mitchell (92 tackles). Rico McCoy might start for the injured Jerod Mayo (82 stops, team-best five sacks). Ryan Karl is steady.

DB'sCOMMENTSDB's

Penn State allows 191.2 passing yards per game – 45th in the nation – and two sophomores are starters. Hero back Anthony Scirrotto leads the team with five interceptions. No other defensive back has more than one as the team recorded just 12 picks. UT's secondary allows 179.5 passing yards per game – 31st in the nation. Jonathan Hefney leads the Vols in tackles (93) and interceptions (five). Jonathan Wade leads the SEC in pass deflections and has four picks.

S. TeamsCOMMENTSS. Teams

Punter Jeremy Kapinos averages 42.2 yards per punt. Kicker Kevin Kelly has hit 20 of 29 field-goal tries. Williams leads the team in punt returns (11.8) and A.J. Wallace leads in kick returns (25.3). UT's Britton Colquitt is averaging 45.0 yards per punt. James Wilhoit has made 17 of 21 field goals. Hefney is averaging 12.8 yards per punt return.


Vols

Nittany Lions
INTANGIBLES

Joe Paterno is 21-10-1 in bowl games. Fulmer is only 7-6. Tennessee is gunning for a 10-win season and a chance to finish in the top 15. Unless Paterno suddenly announces this is his last game, UT has more motivation

PREDICTION

Tennessee 20, Penn State 17.


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