Improved run game key to UT season

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said there were three reasons the Vols didn't run the ball effectively last year. One, the line didn't always block well. Two, UT leaned on a proficient passing game. Three, the Vols didn't call the run often enough.

I can buy the first two reasons.

But the third?

I don't think so.

The reason UT didn't call the run more was because the Vols weren't a good running team.

If UT had been averaging 5 yards per carry, you think it would have run more?

If UT had a Jamal Lewis or a Travis Henry, you think it would have run more?

The answers: Yes and yes.

Tennessee averaged 108 rushing yards per game – the lowest figure since 1964. The Vols ran for less than 100 yards in eight games. They had minus-11 against Florida. They had 79 against Air Force and 96 against Kentucky – two weak defensive teams. They had 57 against Alabama, 62 against LSU, 71 against South Carolina, 83 against Penn State and 92 against Arkansas.

In those eight games, UT averaged a paltry 2.9 yards per rush (counting sacks).

Even when you subtract sacks, the numbers are awful. Vol running backs had 19 carries for 16 yards against Florida, 27 for 95 against Air Force, 18 for 55 against Alabama, and 20 for 53 against South Carolina.

Tennessee didn't even run the ball well against Marshall, until LaMarcus Coker popped an 89-yarder to start the fourth quarter.

As a team, the Vols averaged 3.7 yards per carry. They used to average that on quarterback sneaks. Arian Foster averaged 3.5. Montario Hardesty averaged 3.6. Coker averaged 6.4, but if you take out his long-distance runs of 89, 87 and 42 yards, he would have averaged 4.6.

Center Josh McNeil was disturbed to hear UT had its worst rushing average is over 40 years.

``That's not acceptable at Tennessee,'' McNeil said. ``If it's the lowest since 1964, that's embarrassing. I'm going to make sure I tell the guys (offensive linemen) that and make sure we work hard and fix it this year.''

Rather than blame the line or the running backs for Tennessee's poor rushing totals, offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe blamed himself.

``People will laugh at this, but we weren't a bad running football team,'' Cutcliffe said. ``We just had bad numbers. People will say, `That's a real smart statement. That's kind of Yogi Bear-ish.'

``I didn't do a very good job of calling it. It takes patience to call the run game. I think I was really unfair to us. Most of the runs we weren't making yards on were basically schematic problems. ... It's my job to train the quarterback to manage the run game.''

Cutcliffe admits he lost some patience in the run after the Florida game. Nursing a 10-point lead in the second half, Cutcliffe went to the ground. Florida stuffed the Vols, helping the Gators overcome the deficit.

Had Cutcliffe remained aggressive in his play calling, the Vols might have won.

While the passing game carried the offense, Cutcliffe still believes he could have helped by being more committed to the run.

Cutcliffe recalled the time in 1994, when a wounded Tennessee offense was preparing to play a stout defensive team from Washington State. UT's receivers were hurt. The backs were banged up. The quarterback was a true freshman, Peyton Manning.

The Cougars had a suspect offense, so UT's game plan was conservative.

Cutcliffe told then-receivers coach Kippy Brown: ``If we get booed enough, we're probably going to win.''

In the second half, Brown said: ``Boy, your plan's working great. You're getting booed loud.''

Tennessee won that game 10-9, thanks to a Nilo Silvan reverse for a score.

Said Cutcliffe: ``Sometimes I have to remember that. It's OK to hit a team in the mouth. We didn't hit Florida directly enough.''

Cutcliffe's point: ``You've just got to be patient. You've got to run the football, run the football, run the football. You've got to hear the boos. You've got to have the announcers say, `What are they thinking? What are they doing?'

``You've got to be willing to take the criticism to win a game 10-7 sometimes. I know that. I've been around a long time, I'm a big boy. I can take the criticism. All we've got to do is figure out how to win every game we play that day.''

The problem is, when you go conservative and lose, you open yourself up to second guessing.

If you go conservative and don't protect the lead against Florida, you get ripped. Critics argue you should do what you do best. Last year, that was pass.

To go conservative, you must have a good running game and a solid defense that can protect a lead.

Tennessee had neither last year.

That's one reason the Vols couldn't hold 10-point second-half leads against Florida and LSU.

The positive is, the Vols were good enough to lead the eventual national champion and a top-three team by 10 points in the second half.

Now, they've got to figure out how to hold those leads.

An improved running game is a start.

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